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Minnesota woman drives school bus for 50 years

June 8, 2019

STILLWATER, Minn. (AP) — If you grew up in northwest Stillwater, chances are Barb Thomsen was your school bus driver.

Thomsen, who started driving a bus for Stillwater Area Public Schools in 1969, has transported close to 800,000 students over the past 50 years.

“I have two children on the bus this year that I drove their parents to school,” she said. “There’s a bus driver here who has been here almost 40 years, Jackie Savage, and she rode my bus to school.”

Thomsen, 69, of Forest Lake, estimates she’s logged more than 522,000 miles behind the wheel of her Minnesota Central school bus, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported. “I put on at least 100 miles a day,” she said. “Some days there’s more.”

She’s never tipped over, gotten lost or lost a child, but she’s slid into snowbanks, had tires go flat and has been stuck in traffic.

“If you break down, that puts your time off,” she said. “That’s a bad thing, but you can’t control any of that. The kids don’t mind it. ... Usually they come and get you within 15, 20 minutes, depending on how far out you are. The kids are usually good. They say, ‘Oh, yay! We don’t have to get to school yet.’”

Thomsen and her husband, Gary, who also drives for Minnesota Central, keep their yellow school buses parked on their 5-acre property overnight and over the weekend.

Barb Thomsen gets up at 5 a.m. and is starting her bus by 6:20. Her first stop, near the former Withrow School in Hugo, is about 9 miles from her house.

She takes students to Stillwater Area High School and then turns around and picks up students who attend Rutherford Elementary. She drives until 9:15 a.m. or so and then either drives a charter or heads home for a quick break.

She’s back at Minnesota Central by 1 p.m. and then on the road by 2 p.m., where she drives Rutherford and Stillwater Middle School students until about 4:15 p.m.

Three years ago, she decided to “slow down a little bit” and signed up to be a “casual driver” — reporting in on an as-needed basis, she said.

“I ended up driving the whole year anyway,” she said. “There was a driver having trouble, and they asked if I would take it all the time, and I said I would. The last two years, I’ve had full-time routes.”

Thomsen, who has three children and nine grandchildren, said she stays on the job because of the kids.

“It’s all in what you make them out to be,” she said. “I’ve had wonderful kids, and I’ve had wonderful parents. If you treat them with respect, they respect you. I just enjoy kids.”

For almost two decades, Thomsen drove students who had intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“I can’t say enough how much I loved those kids,” she said. “A whole busload of special-needs kids is so much fun to drive. We just had a blast on that route.”

Thomsen’s older sister, Gloria, got a job driving a school bus for Stillwater schools in 1968 and suggested that Thomsen apply. Thomsen was 18 years old.

“We grew up on a farm, and we started driving the tractor and trucks around the farm when we were 9, 10 years old,” she said. “It was like nothing to drive a school bus.”

Her first day on the job was March 29, 1969.

She rode along with her sister to learn the ropes and then planned to go out with her boss, Bob Dennis, after they returned from Easter break, she said.

“He was going to ride with me, but somebody quit, so he never had the chance,” she said. “He said, ‘You’re on your own.’ It went just fine.”

It turns out romance rides a school bus.

Gloria Thomsen met her late husband, Roland Splinter, at the bus garage; they were married for 44 years before he died in 2013. Barb Thomsen met her husband, Gary, there as well; the couple wed in 1979.

“I drive the light-bulb bus, and he drives the umbrella bus,” she said, referring to the symbols posted in the bus windows to differentiate the routes.

On a recent Wednesday, dozens of friends, family and colleagues gathered at the Minnesota Central bus terminal to celebrate Barb Thomsen’s 50 years of service. She was named Minnesota Central School Bus Driver of the Year for 2019 and Driver of the Month for May.

Thomsen “is a wonderful example of what we look for in a driver — she’s patient, compassionate and dedicated to the safety of our kids,” said Rita Mortensen, the company’s contract manager.

Thomsen is taking a break from driving a school bus this summer. She will be driving a mini-bus for the Oak Ridge Place assisted-living center in Oak Park Heights two days a week.

“I’ll take them grocery shopping on Tuesdays and to their medical appointments on Thursdays,” she said. “It’s such a rewarding job. Those people are so appreciative. They thank me every day that I’m there driving for them. One lady wanted to tip me, and I said, ‘No, no, no.’”

She plans to return to driving a school bus this fall, but will do it as a casual driver. “I’ve said it before, and I can change my mind, but that’s my plan right now,” she said.

She’s seen a lot of changes over the past 50 years.

High school kids are “often looking at their phones,” she said. “They don’t sit and talk amongst themselves. There’s not a lot of chatter. It’s really quiet on the bus.”

Elementary school children, however, are just the opposite, she said.

“They used to just sit and chat with their friends on the way home, and now they’re kind of all over the place,” she said. “In the afternoon, they’re just so wound up. It’s like, ‘You guys, sit down and be quiet.’”

The worst change, she said, has been the increase in traffic.

“Have you ever been to the high school in the morning?” she said. “It’s just crazy. There is so much more traffic out there nowadays, and ... every time you turn around, they are throwing in a new traffic light someplace.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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