It began with a horse-powered vehicle.

The time was 1915, and husband and wife Richard and Bessie Kickert, looking for a way to get seven neighborhood children (including theirs) to and from school, formed their own transportation company. The original “bio-fueled” vehicle was in service back then — in this case, a horse and wagon powered by oats and hay.

Over the next 10 decades, Lynwood, Illinois-based Kickert School Bus Line’s vehicles went from gasoline to propane, and then to biodiesel. The shop manager went from blacksmith to maintenance facility supervisor. And transportation went from seven to about 12,000 students.

Initially, the Kickerts transported to just one place and back: McKinley School in South Holland, Illinois. Today, Kickert is a subsidiary of Cook-Illinois Corp. and provides regular-education transportation services to more than 10 surrounding communities.

PHOTOS: Illinois school bus company turns 100

This year, Kickert is celebrating 100 years in service. To find out more about the major milestones in the company’s history, School Bus Fleet spoke with Tom O’Sullivan, vice president of contracts and bids, who has been with the company since 1992.

Fast Facts
Fleet: 150 school buses
Staff: 160 drivers, 180 total employees
Students transported: 12,000
Annual mileage: 2.5 million

SBF: How did the vehicles, and the way they were powered, evolve over the years?
TOM O’SULLIVAN: It all started with a horse and buggy 100 years ago. From there, we converted a diesel truck to a school bus. Over the years, we have been at the forefront for trying alternative fuels. In the 1970s and ’80s, we had vehicles that ran on CNG [compressed natural gas] engines and propane engines. In the last 10 years, we have also been providing buses that run on biodiesel fuel. Just recently, in the last couple of years, we are again purchasing buses that use propane fuel. Kickert has also been at the forefront of safety with the vehicles. We have always ordered our buses with the flame retardant seat covers, and we have had employees who have participated in committees concerning the safety of school buses.

What about emerging technologies with each decade?
Kickert has been at the forefront in using technology with their school buses. In the 1970s, we were the first company to have a computerized routing program from IBM. Today, we use Versatrans, Transfinder, Edulog and others. In the early 1990s, we began using cameras in school buses. In those first days, we used Sony handheld 8mm cameras. Today, we use digital technology. Today’s vehicles also utilize GPS technology both for tracking the buses and students.

Kickert showed off this vintage school bus, a 1945 Ford with a Superior body, during the recent parade.

Kickert showed off this vintage school bus, a 1945 Ford with a Superior body, during the recent parade.

How has Kickert met the challenges of student transportation?
The challenges are many:

1. Competition: Illinois is a bid state, and approximately 50% of the districts contract versus running the buses themselves. This provides opportunities, but there are also many competitors.
2. Driver shortages: Retaining employees is our No. 1 goal. We try to create a family atmosphere at Kickert with our employees, and that includes being fair with pay and benefits, but also creating an environment where employees want to come to work.
3. School bus maintenance: Kickert has been fortunate to have excellent mechanics who can maintain all the different types of engines — gas, diesel, propane, etc. We also have a body shop that keeps our buses looking new.
4. Building customer relationships: Kickert has been fortunate to have developed long-standing relationships with many customers. Some of these relationships go back to the 1930s. Building relationships with district administrators is important, but our best salespersons are our drivers and their relationships with the students on the bus, the parents of the students and the school employees. This is our greatest asset.

In your opinion, are there any universal truths about how a transportation company stays in business and provides excellent service?
Hard work, customer relations and excellent employees.

Highlights from Kickert's history
Here’s a brief history of Kickert School Bus Line’s operations and ownership, as told by Tom O’Sullivan.

1915: Richard and Bessie Kickert live in South Holland, Illinois. Besides taking the Kickerts’ own children to McKinley School (which is still a customer today), their neighbors ask if their children can also be taken to school. They pay Richard for that service, which is provided by a horse-drawn wagon fitted with board seats.
1920s: Richard buys a diesel truck and converts it to a school bus. The family moves to Lynwood, Illinois (the same location where Kickert is today). They sign their first contract with a school district in the 1920s. Bessie is the brains behind the operation.
1950: Richard passes away. Bessie, along with her five children, continues to run the school bus company.
Early 1960s: The family is advised to sell the company, and they want to make sure it is sold to a non-family member. As it turns out, Bill Messmaker, grandson of Richard Kickert, has put an investment team together and ends up purchasing Kickert without any of the family members knowing he is involved. He brings in Noel Biery and Paul Boender to help run the company. They not only grow the school bus side of the business, but they also expand into coach buses.
1980: Bill Messmaker becomes ill and sells the company to John Benish Sr. of Cook-Illinois Corp. Noel and Paul stay on to run the company until they retire.
2015: Kickert celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Lisa J. Hudson is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina.