By Bonita Wilborn
Mary Jo Chandler said of her 51 years as a bus driver for the DeKalb County School system, “I’ve enjoyed most of them.” She began working in the lunchroom at Log Cabin School in 1967, which she said she enjoyed, but her father was a bus driver and often needed a substitute to drive in his place. In those days all that was required for driving a bus was a valid driver’s license. I can remember in my younger years there were certain school students who were permitted to fill the role of a substitute bus driver. Of course, that is no longer the case.
With bus driving experience, when a bus driving position came available at Plainview School, Mary Jo applied for the job and got it. She became the second female driver at Plainview and only the fourth in the entire school system. Nevertheless, the administration that was in power at that point in history was of the belief that a female driver was incapable of driving a bus up the mountain, so her first year of employment as a bus driver she drove a route in Rainsville.
“A bunch of people from down here [Pine Ridge] petitioned for me to drive down here so when a route came open I started driving down here and I drove virtually the same route for all of those years,” Mary Jo explained. “At first I drove all the way down to the city dump road and turned around, drove up the road beside the Western Sizzlin and went to the prison camp (what is currently the road department yard), then I turned around and came back across and on what is now Prestwood Drive, and I went to where the hospital is now. It was a big route when I first started. At one time I crossed highway 35 twelve different times during the route.”
Construction on Highway 35 in the 1990s changed Mary Jo’s route considerably as well as the fact that Fort Payne’s City School System took in a lot more of the students who lived within the city limits of Fort Payne.
Mary Jo said, “I just always loved it and loved my kids.” In those 51 years she no doubt also drove the children and perhaps even the grandchildren of some of the students who were on her route when she first began driving a school bus.
The largest number of students that rode Mary Jo’s bus on a daily basis was 126, many years ago. Current school buses only seat 72 students. In the 60s and 70s school buses were much shorter than they are now. That meant a lot of students were standing in the isle toward the end of the route.
Mary Jo said, “Back then all of the busses were loaded. When I’d stop to let kids off at their house, a dozen and a half students might have to get off the bus to let the ones who lived there get off, then they’d all get back on and we go on down the road.”
Over the past 51 years Mary Jo has seen a lot of changes not only in school and county administration as well as school policy, but also in state law concerning bus drivers and other school employees. It is now state law that every student must have a seat before the bus can leave the school. If there are more students on the bus than there is seating for (73+), the bus driver must contact school officials and wait for instruction, which is generally finding another mode of transportation for some of the children, likely waiting at school for another bus driver to finish their route and return to the school to take on the extra students. In the past few years Mary Jo said the average number of students that rode her bus on a daily basis was 55, so that has not been a problem.
In addition to her bus driving job, Mary Jo has worn a lot of hats over the years. Among her many positions are the following: she cleaned a number of businesses after hours, spent a number of years as mayor of Pine Ridge and the Chief of the Pine Ridge Fire Department, taught CPR all over the state, was the President of the DeKalb County Educational Support Professionals Organization (ESPO), and was active in softball leagues for more years than she could probably count.
When asked what her plans for retirement are Mary Jo said, “I’m trying to cut back on my CPR classes. I’d like to get a little ‘me’ time in. I’m going to do a little bit of staying on the river, but I’m going to continue working with the Fire Department and the town, and who knows what else might pop up.”
Mary Jo concluded by saying, “I’d like to thank everyone. I was shocked to death with the retirement party and since then I’ve received many cards, many gifts, and many phone calls. I appreciate all that. I thought I’d just slip out and nothing would be said or done.”