56 years behind the wheel: Jones reflects on school bus driving career he’s loved

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Rowland Jones drove his final school bus route this spring, wrapping up a 56-year career with first the MFL, and now MFL MarMac, School District. Bus driving hasn’t just been a job, but an integral part of who Rowland is. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Rowland has a small collection of miniature school buses in the upstairs of his rural Monona home, and when he put a new sign up at his farm a year and a half ago, a school bus with the MFL MarMac school name was proudly displayed beneath his name. A school bus is even on his headstone.

Rowland, pictured with a school bus several years ago, said connecting with people has been his favorite part of driving school bus. In many cases, Rowland has watched multiple generations of a family grow up. “My current route, they were either three or two, with the exception of a couple families that moved in. So you get attached to the kids,” he said.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

 

When Rowland Jones started as a bus driver in fall 1966, officials at MFL School District feared he wouldn’t stick with it.

 

“They said, ‘Yes, we need bus drivers, but you’re so young. We know you’ll never last, but we’ll let you try it. We won’t even make you get a bus permit yet because we know you won’t last,’” he recalled.

 

Before the school year was over, Rowland was asked to stay on.

 

He subbed for the first two years, taking a trip here and there or sometimes one route for two or three weeks. Eventually, he moved to full time.

 

In the 56 years since—which have spanned six MFL (and later MFL MarMac) superintendents and five transportation directors—Rowland estimates he’s covered half a million miles.

 

“I’ve driven every route in the district at least once, except the route that goes up by Pikes Peak and down to Sny Magill. We’d just been with Mar-Mac since 1994, and by that time I was on a full-time route. I didn’t try it, although I probably could have subbed some time or another,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to drive that in the winter time. It’s probably a pretty route in the summer and fall, though.”

 

Rowland drove his final bus route this spring. 

 

Health forced him to step away, otherwise the long-time driver claims he’d still be behind the wheel.

 

“I do enjoy, and I did a lot of driving of, elementary field trips in the fall and spring,” he said. “I had three or four trips scheduled this spring that I wasn’t able to do, and that makes me feel pretty bad.”

 

Aside from when the pandemic cancelled in-person classes in 2020, a two-week stretch staying with his sister for cancer treatments and a day or week here and there, this is the longest Rowland has been away from a bus.

 

“Until this happened, I had over 100 accumulated sick leave days, so you know I haven’t missed a lot,” he said. 

 

He’ll always have the fond memories, though.

 

When Rowland started driving in the 1960s, buses held 36 to 42 passengers—half of what the current models haul.

 

“Now, we have 72-, 75- and 84-passenger,” he said. “Everyone asks, ‘How can you drive a big bus?’ Well, if you grow up on a farm, you learn when pulling a wagon behind a tractor that you have to swing wider because the wagon won’t follow where you drive with the tractor. That helped me drive a bus. You just have to swing wider.”

 

“The other important thing to learn driving bus is that you have mirrors—and use the mirrors,” Rowland quipped.

 

In the early days, buses had six-volt batteries and generators. Rowland recalled driving a route northeast of Monona in spring 1968, where he was instructed not to turn on the headlights until it got really dark in the evening. 

 

“If you have your heaters on and turn your headlights on, you’ll wear your battery down so your bus might stop,” he said. “Now, you run your lights all the time and have four, five, six heaters. We now have alternators and huge batteries.”

 

Buses initially had a defroster and heater for the driver and maybe one other heater in the bus. 

 

“You didn’t get the bus very warm, and there were many times you tried hard to keep the frost off the windshield so you could see,” Rowland shared.

 

Big buses take around an hour to heat up, and used to be kept outside, meaning drivers had to arrive early to start their bus and scrape the windshield. Now, MFL MarMac Transportation Director Trent Miene starts the buses for the drivers in the wintertime.

 

Rowland, who also farmed during a large part of his bus driving career, grew used to arriving at the bus garage early, though.

 

“Since I quit milking in 1992, there’s probably only been a half dozen mornings when I wasn’t there by 6 a.m. or 10 after,” he said. “I start picking up at 10 to 7 in the morning and get to school at 10 to 8. For the last 10 years, I’ve driven a route to Giard where we switch with another bus. I take fourth graders to Giard, then take preschool, kindergarten and first grade back to Monona. In the afternoon, I do exactly the opposite.”

 

Rowland listed two-way radios as the biggest improvement in buses over the years. 

 

He’s also had to adjust to driving a flat nose or cab over school bus. The conventional buses situated drivers close to the center of the bus, he explained.

 

“Now, you sit right up along the left hand side, so you had to learn to drive about a foot and a half closer to the center line than you did before,” Rowland said. “The hardest change for me, probably, in going to the newer style buses, is we started out with six cylinder engines with four-speed transmissions. Then we went up to two-speed, rear axles, and now all the buses have automatic transmissions.”

 

Although the buses have changed in Rowland’s 56 years behind the wheel, the importance of his duties has not. Safety has always been a top priority.

 

He’s had two bus accidents during that time, both at the Kwik Star intersection in Monona. One was in the afternoon, heading to McGregor, while the other was in the morning, as Rowland drove west.

 

“Kids weren’t injured in either accident, which I was very happy about,” he reflected.

 

As a bus driver, Rowland said you get used to driving in poor weather conditions.

 

“It used to be, if the bus drivers could get to school, we’d have school in the morning. There was no such thing as two hours late. And it had to be awfully bad to go home early in the afternoon,” he shared. “When it was storming, you’d drive between the telephone poles and light poles because you couldn’t see the road. Now, there’s no telephone poles and hardly any light poles, and everybody has taken out their fences. That makes it harder.”

 

“I’ve driven whole routes taking kids home in the afternoon where I could not see where I was going,” he continued. “It scares you, but you learn to live with it.”

 

For Rowland, getting out and being with people is what he enjoyed about driving—and what he’ll miss most in retirement.

 

“That’s why I go in early in the morning and try to go in early in the afternoon. Once you get used to the kids, you want to see them every day,” he said.

 

Rowland remembers many of the kids he’s transported over the years: a little girl who didn’t want to continue piano lessons, two brothers who sat in the front of the bus until they were sophomores in high school just so they could talk with him about farming.

 

“I have a family right now with three boys, and there’s a little girl who’s three years old and just can’t wait to ride on Rowland’s bus. But it’s not going to happen now,” he reflected. “The little girl and her mother come out and wave to me almost every morning when I pick up the boys. You look forward to things like that.”

 

In many cases, Rowland has watched multiple generations of a family grow up.

 

“My current route, they were either three or two, with the exception of a couple families that moved in. So you get attached to the kids,” he said.

 

Bus driving hasn’t just been a job, but an integral part of who Rowland is. He has a small collection of miniature school buses in the upstairs of his rural Monona home. When he put a new sign up at his farm a year and a half ago, a school bus with the MFL MarMac school name was proudly displayed beneath his name.

 

It’s a love that will outlast him.

 

“I even put a school bus on my tombstone,” Rowland said.

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