Bus driver Tom Garrett retiring after more than 40 years transporting students for the Eastern Allamakee Community School District

Hauling precious cargo for more than 40 years ... Tom Garrett of Lansing (second from left in back row wearing white hat) is pictured above with some of the students from the Eastern Allamakee Community School District that he currently transports on his school bus route for the district. Garrett has been driving school bus for the school district for more than 40 years and is retiring from the position following completion of this current school year. Photo by Macie Hill.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

Tom Garrett of Lansing has put a lot of miles on Eastern Allamakee Community School District buses through the last 41 years. This year marks his retirement from that job.

More than 40 years ago, when he was in his mid-twenties, he heard that the school district transportation director, Vince Mullarkey, was looking for bus drivers. Mullarkey and Donny Johnson were in charge of the busing system and knew Garrett. Through those early years, Garrett was also a full-time deputy sheriff for Allamakee County, but he worked a majority of night shifts, so during the day he could drive school buses.

After he retired from the Sheriff’s department in 2004, he increased his bus load to include more activity buses in addition to his morning and evening routes.

Bus driving allowed him to get to know a great number of different kids and families throughout the years. He had the same route through all his years of driving, so he ended up driving more than one generation of a family to school during his career. He especially enjoyed driving for the various athletic teams.

Garrett said, “I was always fortunate to have really supportive parents on my route.”

During his career behind the wheel, his job had him leaving the bus barn at about 6:50 a.m. for his morning route. Each time he arrived 10-20 minutes early to do a short bus inspection. The route usually took about an hour. Sometimes the rider numbers varied because more students drive to school than in the past. Plus, if there were a lot of activities, such as sports and play practice, the day-to-day route number of pick-ups and drop-offs could vary quite a lot.

Garrett said the average number of students riding was usually about 25. The night route might take a little longer since they waited for the New Albin shuttle buses to arrive before they could finish loading.

Kenny Johnson is the current transportation director for the school district. Garrett stated, “I’ve been fortunate over the years to have good people to work with. Everyone cooperates and helps each other out. The main job is to get the kids to school and home safely.”

Normally, he drives a morning and evening route but he’s logged plenty of miles for school trips as well. The longest trip was probably to St. Louis, MO when the band played at the big amusement park there and went to a ball game. Other long trips were to Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison and Des Moines.

Looking back through the years, Garrett had one particularly special memory of driving teams. “One of the highlights of all my years of driving was when I drove for baseball under Coach Gene Schultz,” Garrett shared. “I drove several trips to State contests. Baseball was one of my favorites. Gene Schultz was a unique character and we ended up being good friends.

“One baseball memory I have is that the baseball season hadn’t started yet and I was at a track meet at MFL in Monona and was sitting in the bus because it was chilly. I was looking in my rear-view mirror and I could see the baseball team throwing balls to each other. There were about six or eight players throwing the ball around. I happened to be talking on the cell phone to Coach Schultz and I told him I could see MFL’s team practicing.

“He always had a thing about left-handed pitchers. His first question was ‘How many left-handers do they have?’ He always had a phobia that his team had trouble with left-handers. I said to him, ‘You aren’t going to believe this but they’re all left-handers!’ He said, ‘Oh no!’

“We talked for a while and then we hung up. I got out of the bus and started watching the team and then they were all right-handers. I didn’t realize that the mirror had reversed everything that I was seeing. I didn’t let him know that until a bit later. I figured he could stew on it a while! It was always fun when there was a big win, but the kids always adjusted if they lost as well.”

As one might expect in the largely rural area that is home to the Eastern Allamakee Community School District, there was the occasional encounter with wildlife, as Garrett explained.

“Probably one of my more unusual experiences was the time a turkey flew right into the bus,” he reflected. “I was on my evening route, a couple of miles out by Village Creek. All I saw was a flash and the turkey came right through my windshield. It was alive in the bus. The kids thought something blew up.

No one got injured. I stopped the bus and opened the door and got the turkey out, but it didn’t live long after that. Two or three seconds and it was over.”

Bus drivers have to have pretty steady nerves, especially driving all those kids during bad weather. Garrett remarked, “Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we went in lots of bad weather because we put chains on the tires. We had a couple of close calls whether or not we should stay overnight but we always made it.

Now with the more advanced forecasts, the districts are more cautious on the side of safety, which is a good thing.”

Garrett said bus sizes have changed over the years as well. “The buses have gotten bigger,” he noted. “In the past, 36-49 passenger buses were common. Now, we’ve got more 65-passenger route buses and a couple of buses which carry 84 and 77 students; those are mostly for activities because they have storage as well.”

His advice to future bus drivers: “Enjoy kids and don’t mind a little noise. You’ve got to expect that you’re going to have some noise. Overall, the kids have been great and well-behaved. I know that it’s difficult to find drivers because a driver has to be available morning and night, plus they have to have a CDL (commercial driver’s license), which is about an 18-hour course, and a DOT (Department of Transportation) medical card, plus there are a few in-services drivers have to take along with all school staff.”

As to his future, Garrett says, “From now on, I’ll probably sub when they need someone to fill in. I’m looking forward to my grandkids’ activities, plus my wife has a few plans for me as well.”

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