History Corner: Student by Day, Bus Driver by Night

By Abby Gagermeier, Feature Editor

The JV basketball team sits shivering on the curb. Barry Hall (class of ‘53) and his teammates patiently wait for the bus to take them across town for a mid-season game against Osborne. Finally, to their relief, the bus rolls up to the curb, lurching to a stop as the brakes give off an ear-splitting screech. At the top of the steep, grimy steps, the bus driver sits with his foot balanced on the gas pedal. The young man in the driver’s seat is indeed licensed, yet only 17 years old.

Unlike today, school bus drivers in the ‘50s and ‘60s were not experienced adults. Rather, they were volunteer juniors and seniors who bused sports teams all across Northern Virginia. Tom Beery (class of ‘61) was one of a handful of boys who were a part of the group, pictured in the yearbook looking poised and proper. He explains the challenges that he faced driving the mustard-yellow behemoths after school.

“The buses were stickshift,” says Beery, with a clutch-pedal and gearbox. Without the simplicity of today’s automatic vehicles, the adolescent drivers had to make do with a rather touchy system. If the ‘stick’ wasn’t properly in gear, then the system would rattle, putting out an unpleasant grinding noise that every passenger was sure to hear. To avoid such a situation, Beery had to acquire a Chauffeur's License, as provided by the county. To do so, he had to pass the official driving test.

Beery recalls driving through town, with a teacher peering over his shoulder, carefully observing his every movement. As he came up to an amber light (a “yellow” light in today’s terminology,) his instructor barked a rather off-putting demand: “Run it!” Against his better judgment, Beery disobeyed. He eased to a stop, and in that moment passed his teacher’s hidden test. He had officially earned his license.

None of the alumni recall feeling unsafe, despite the fact that their lives were in the hands of a classmate. For them, it was completely normal. Ron Orndoff (class of ‘58) even describes his fond memories of students sitting “three to a seat and standing in the aisle.” But as time went on, safety became a significant priority, and the student bus driver program was phased out.

With the increase in day-to-day traffic, such actions seem fitting as the roads have become too chaotic for such inexperienced drivers. Most students nowadays can’t fathom a 17 or 18-year-old bus driver picking them up for school, or taking them down Route 50.

Barry Hall smiles at the memory, “Life was easier,” he says. “It was simple.”