Local bus drivers make sure students get to school safely

Photo by Tucker Henderson
The New York Mills buses are inspected each day prior to leaving the garage in the morning and afternoon. The time presents an opportunity for bus drivers to catch up and builds camaraderie among one another, while also ensuring that the buses are ready for students. 

By Tucker Henderson


As students start getting antsy and teachers give out their last assignments for the day, the bus garage across the street is hopping as bus drivers fill the air with jokes, comments, and stories from their routes. A buttercup squash sits out, being given away from one of the driver’s gardens. The seats torn out of old buses line the hallway for fellowship and some good-natured ribbing.

That’s the life of a bus driver in the New York Mills school district. The bus garage fills up quickly as drivers appear through the doorway, getting ready to pick up their busload of students. There’s always time for some workplace camaraderie before school’s out. You’ll hear a lot of memories and lessons learned over the years, sitting in those brown-covered bus seats.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” said Jon Niemela of the lessons he has learned as a bus driver. “Patience is one of the big ones.”

“Any job is what you want to make of it,” said Joe Hayden. “The bus route is pretty good. Most of the time there is no problems.”

“Somebody’s got to do it,” said Niemela about driving bus. “The less you yell, the better the kids behave.”

In every job there are times that are harder than others. Winter hazards are one of those difficulties, especially in Minnesota.

“Driving on the snow packed, wintery roads,” said Mike Wedde, shaking his head, “driving white knuckle all winter like last year.”

Jokes about putting a snow plow on the front of each bus make the thought of the coming icy road conditions a bit more bearable.

“Maybe the county will give everyone a bump in pay if you get snow plows on the buses,” joked Leroy Smith. “Then they could see the tracks, easier to know where to plow.”

Many locals still remember the cold days on the bus plowing through snow drifts on the country roads on the way to school.

“In the old days, they’d wake up about three in the morning in a bad snowstorm to get the roads cleared, before they got packed” said Dale Eckhoff, “now they come on about 7:30-8 o’clock.”

Eckhoff says this will be a warm and mild winter, he says it won’t compare to last winter’s cold temperatures.

“You haven’t got a very big woodpile, that’s why you say that,” ribbed Warren Thompson.

Thompson has been driving for 11 years, joining the team after managing a lumber yard for many years.

“It’s a retirement job,” said Thompson. He said that the kids are the best part of his job. A couple of the drivers mentioned that the younger kids even give out hugs every once and a while. Even the tougher kids mellow out after a while.

“The kids have better behavior on the bus after a few years,” said Niemela.”

Niemela started driving bus 14 years ago and one of appealing parts of the job was that his grandkids were on his route. He was in the Air Force and then worked for his brother at Niemela Repair for years before he decided to drive bus. He’s learned a thing or two on the bus over the years.

“Say hi to them in the morning and say goodbye to them in the afternoon,” said Niemela. “I like the kids on the route.”