NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Dr. Ernest Farmer, who led Tennessee’s pupil transportation program at the state level for more than three decades, died on May 16 at age 92.
For local transportation directors in Tennessee who were new to the job or just needed advice, Farmer was a vital source of guidance, according to Larry Riggsbee, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Pupil Transportation.
“'Call Dr. Farmer' — that was the buzzword for everybody,” Riggsbee told SBF. “Dr. Farmer had the answers, he had the rules and regulations, simply because he made most of the rules and regulations. They didn’t exist until he developed them.”
Earlier in his career, Farmer worked as a teacher, a coach, and an elementary school principal. He joined the Tennessee Department of Education in 1955 in an education training supervisor role, and he became involved in pupil transportation three years later. In 1962, Farmer was appointed as the state’s first official director of pupil transportation.
For the majority of his tenure as state director, Farmer oversaw Tennessee’s school bus driver training, school bus inspections, specifications, and regulations. He also worked to keep transportation directors informed, which was no easy feat in the time before email and internet.
“Communicating with 130 school districts in the state was a tough task,” Riggsbee said, noting that Farmer logged many miles in his car visiting those districts. “It’s 500 miles from Memphis to Bristol" — in other words, from the southwestern corner of the state to the northeastern corner.
Farmer was also a driving force in the broader Southeastern States Pupil Transportation Conference. He served in various roles on the event's executive committee, including president, vice president, secretary-treasurer, program chair, and historian.
At the annual gathering of 14 states, Farmer gave presentations on numerous subjects, such as school bus driver background checks and drug testing, student discipline, accident records, and alternative fuels. Riggsbee noted that Farmer continued to attend Southeastern States for many years after he retired.
“That was his pride and joy,” Riggsbee said. “I suspect that he is as well known at the Southeastern conference as he is in Tennessee.”
In another role that extended beyond the borders of his state, Farmer served on a committee authorized by Congress to conduct a school bus safety study. That effort was under the direction of the Transportation Research Board and the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1991, School Bus Fleet named Farmer its Administrator of the Year for his work to promote school bus safety at the local, state, and national levels. At that point, Farmer had postponed his retirement to ensure that Tennessee’s school districts had a state pupil transportation representative.
Farmer’s actual retirement as state director came in 1995. For more than 20 years afterward, Tennessee had no official state director of pupil transportation. That changed after the 2016 fatal school bus crash in Chattanooga, with the appointment of Tammy Knipp as state director of student transportation at the Tennessee Department of Education in September of last year.
At a state conference in Pigeon Forge last week, the Tennessee Association of Pupil Transportation posthumously recognized Farmer for his many years of service and contributions to school bus safety. The tribute included remarks from Lt. Ray Robinson, head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s pupil transportation division.
Riggsbee also pointed to Farmer’s impact on his own career as he transitioned from an English classroom to a transportation office.
“Dr. Farmer really helped me,” Riggsbee told SBF, “as he did everybody.”