I never met Joe Mirabella, but I’m sure I would have liked him.
As I researched the former school transportation leader to write an article on him after his untimely death in late February, I got the sense that he was committed to doing what he felt was right — even if that meant going against the grain.
Mirabella was known for advocating advertising on school buses, which was not a popular idea in the pupil transportation community then — nor is it now. Just last year, several industry associations voiced their opposition to school bus advertising by issuing position papers against the practice or calling for the defeat of state legislation that would allow it.
Personally, I’m wary of exposing children to more ads. My own kids only watch TV channels that don’t run commercials, and if we listen to the radio in the car, it’s usually on the local ad-free classical music station.
But Mirabella, who was director of transportation for Colorado’s Cherry Creek School District from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, had a good reason for bucking the conventional thinking. He told SBF back in 1999 that revenue from school bus ads could help in retiring buses that had outlived their usefulness.
“That enhances the safety for kids,” he said.
While others said that ads on buses could be a safety hazard, Mirabella countered that there was no statistical evidence to support that.
He told The Associated Press in ‘97 that Cherry Creek’s buses with ads had covered more than 1.7 million miles. While there had been accidents, he pointed out that not one of them was attributed to the ads.
Even if you don’t agree with Mirabella’s reasoning, you have to respect his resoluteness.
He also led his district into an early adoption of alternative fuels, long before it became much more popular and practical. As David Anderson — who served as fleet manager for Cherry Creek while Mirabella was director — told me, they had to make some parts themselves to keep their dual-fuel (gas and compressed natural gas) systems running.
Another reason I’m compelled by Mirabella’s story: his choice of footwear.
Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said that Mirabella made a lasting first impression on him “because he not only had the nerve to wear sandals with a three-piece suit, he had the audacity to think he looked good doing it.”
As a Southern California native, I’ve been known to wear sandals at times when it might not seem appropriate — even in the snow after my family moved to Oregon.
Mirabella retired right around the time I started covering the pupil transportation industry with SBF, so we never crossed paths. But he was certainly no stranger to the magazine: He was named SBF’s Administrator of the Year in ‘99 for his numerous contributions — locally, statewide and nationally.
Many in the school bus community have been mourning a man they called a leader, a mentor and a friend. My prayers are with them and his family.