With a little heart, soul and help from the bus patrol, Suzi Gehrman has carted children back and forth from the Amery Schools since 1986. The decision to retire was not an easy one as the students have left an impression on her heart, and throughout the years she has left a major impact on the lives of the students.
Gehrman started her bus-driving career in 1980 with the School District of Clayton. It gave her the opportunity to be near her own children. She wasn’t apprehensive about driving a big bus. She knew it had the exact same motor as the gravel truck that she and her husband had purchased. She said, “Plus, I was raised on a farm and I was used to driving machinery around.”
When looking back at her start in Amery in ’86, Gehrman rolled her eyes and slapped her knee when she shared her unconventional first day story, “Oh boy was I ever frightened. My back went out the day I was supposed to come over and talk about the job. I called and said that I didn’t want to be rude, but I needed to go to the chiropractor before the bus garage. The voice on the other end of the line told me to go ahead and do whatever I needed. I went up to sweet Arlen York’s office and after he fixed my back up he said, ‘Come on girl, I am going with you. You are going to get this job.’ We walked into the bus garage and straight up to darling Roy Beecroft. Before I could say a word, Roy said, ‘You’re hired. Give me your license.’ We went for a ride and the rest is history.”
Unlike the confidence she felt when driving the buses in Clayton, Gehrman shared she was quite nervous on that first ride with Beecroft. In Clayton, the school buses had noses on the front of them and Amery’s were flat. She was quite positive that he was going to crash into something. When he didn’t, she figured she would. “He told me that once I got used to this kind of bus, I would never go back and he was right,” said Gehrman.
Even the snowy Wisconsin winter roads are not a challenge for Gehrman. “Are you kidding? This thing can make it through anything. It drives like a dream,” she said from the seat of her big yellow rig.
She said in the beginning Beecroft and Les Heiden had her in training, filling in on routes. Next she drove Jacquie Dixon’s Polk County Ed. route. Gehrman said, “Les told me, ‘Where I tell you to go, you go.’ And I said, ‘Yes Sir.’ I did that for a year before I said, ‘Gosh darn it Les, I want a full-time route.’ So I was given bus nine when sweet Bruce Schubert and his wife Jan stopped driving the Lake Wapogasset area.”
She said she did that route for a little while and next drove north of Hwy. 8 for some years. “Les came to me and said Ethel Leisz wanted a smaller bus and wondered if I would like to take a challenge, and of course I did. Which landed me where I have been ever since,” she said.
Gehrman shared current transportation supervisor Tom Olson recently checked on the year she settled into her home of bus No. 18, and it took place in 1995. It is part of a route that for many years was driven by Harvey Monson as bus 14.
“I have four families of second generations on that route. I just love it,” Gehrman said.
She has named her buses throughout the years and said the first bus she had on her current route was named Hummer. “She didn’t go fast, but she was dependable. Hummer had over 300,000 miles on her,” said Gehrman.
The children who share it with Gehrman named the current bus. “Teenerbird got her name because she is No. 18 and she is a Bluebird brand bus,” she said. Teenerbird has heartfelt tokens from the children taped above the driver’s area.
With eyes filled with tears she talked about the sleepy faces that have been a part of her bus family for so many years.
“From kindergarten on up through High School, I have loved these kids. They are my own babies. They have shared with me their tears and their own joys, and I have done the same,” said Gehrman.
She said the children noticed on days when she was feeling sad, like times when she had lost her parents. They asked her if she wanted to talk about anything. She said, “If you open up to them, they open up to you and you really form a bond.”
She remembers what it felt like in younger years when her parents were divorcing and tries her best to be a support for any tough situation her bus babies are facing. She makes sure families have her phone number and encourages them to call her at anytime if they feel there is something going on in their children’s lives that she should be aware of.
Some of her specific favorite memories include the time a mother chased the bus down to try to clean it after her child had gotten sick while aboard and the time that a gentleman tried to ride the bus with a child on the first day and she wouldn’t let him.
She didn’t know for sure he was the child’s father and did not have permission to allow him on the bus. He was waiting with the principal when she pulled up to the school. It turned out he was indeed the father, and a police officer. She explained and they understood that she was just trying to keep her babies safe.
Gehrman asked her riders if they had any requests pertaining to who takes over her driver’s seat. They said they wanted someone who smiles and tells them to, “Have a good night.”
When asked if she had any advice for the person who takes over her route she said, “Listen to the kids and love them.”
The decision to retire was exceptionally rough. She sat down and hand wrote letters to the families before the announcement of her retirement.
“I sat at my table blubbering. I would start writing a letter and then crumple it up. I didn’t think I would make it through writing them,” said Gehrman.
She is exited to spend more time with her husband of almost 48 years, Bob. She will also be able to have more time with her three daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
One thing that she will not do in retirement is sleep-in. “I will still get up at quarter after three in the morning,” she said. She also hopes to eventually come back and sub.
Gehrman said, “People have asked me how I did this for so many years. I promise you that once you start driving these wonderful kids, you will never want to leave. My 39 years behind the wheel went by way too fast.”