ATLANTIC, Iowa — What started out as a side job for a farmer looking to bring in extra money turned into a career in school transportation that he grew to love for over two decades before retiring in December.
In 1996, Dave Eckles was a farmer when he became a substitute driver for extra money. After a year, he was hired as a mechanic, but still drove for about six more years, then took over as transportation director for Atlantic Community School District in 2000 where he remained for 18 years.
As the district’s transportation director, Eckles has enjoyed overseeing all aspects of the job, especially interacting daily with drivers, students, and mechanics. As a driver, he enjoyed conversations with his students, and as a mechanic he found it rewarding to know that if a driver came in to the shop, he could "brighten their day a bit,” by fixing their bus, he told School Bus Fleet.
Although it has been challenging to fill bus driver positions for activity trips, dealing with shortages from time to time, he has always been able to count on the support of his drivers and mechanics.
“It’s nice to see everything running smoothly,” Eckles said. “I commend my drivers for making me look good.”
That smooth operation includes the transportation department’s fleet. Eckles began working to convert the fleet from diesel to propane in 2012, purchasing one bus that year, and a few more the following year.
The department installed a propane fueling station in 2016 and bought more propane buses, and now close to half of the fleet runs on propane.
With support from the district’s superintendent, he made the decision to convert the fleet in an effort to lessen pollution around students and staff and reduce costs, Eckles said.
Additional benefits of the propane buses have been improved student behavior, because the buses run more smoothly and quietly, and they heat up quickly in the winter, he added.
There have been some amusing moments along the way, Eckles noted. He told one bus driver that she should start a diary of all the occurrences on her rural route. In particular, one day just under 10 years ago she brought her bus back to the yard and it had a mailbox stuck in the rear window.
“She couldn’t remove it,” he recalled. “I had to go pry it loose.”
Eckles has also served on the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association’s board of directors and on the Iowa Department of Education’s Maintenance and Inspection Advisory Council (MIAC) for many years.
Max Christensen, an executive officer for school transportation at the Iowa Department of Education, has worked with Eckles on the council, and noted that he has participated in a number of pilot projects in Iowa.
“The MIAC helps our inspection team work through issues that arise throughout the year, plus they are an integral part of the process when we update our construction standards,” Christensen said. “Plus, he's just a super nice guy on top of all of it. I'm going to miss him, but I wish him the best of luck in retirement: he has certainly earned it.”
Eckles’ retirement was effective Dec. 31. (A successor hasn’t been named yet.) He plans to spend more time with his family on his small farm, where he has a lot of fix -up projects planned, and do some fishing and traveling with his wife, he said.
Despite concluding his school transportation career, he will remember it fondly.
“It’s one of those positions you never start out in life thinking you’re going to get,” he said. “It’s one of those jobs you grow to love.”