ALTON, Ill. — After 40 years of repairing buses and getting behind the wheel when drivers were scarce, a school bus mechanic here recently retired.
Dennis Rodgers, a former service technician for North America Central School Bus, d.b.a. Illinois Central School Bus, serving Alton School District #11, started working for school bus company R.W. Harmon and Sons as a mechanic’s helper in 1977. His wife’s uncle helped him get the job.
He hadn’t envisioned himself working in school transportation at the time, Rodgers noted.
“I never considered it as a career,” he said. “It just kind of grew into one, one day at a time.”
Rodgers has seen many changes over the span of his career, mainly in technology.
“Right now, the technology is really expanding,” he said. “It’s a challenge to keep up, because the school bus industry is starting to catch up with the automotive and other industries. It’s really changing from year to year.”
For example, Rodgers pointed to developments such as diesel exhaust fluid, computer-based mechanics controlled by an electronic control unit, and use of a laptop to diagnose issues.
“It seems like whenever you get a new bus, there’s always something different that you have to learn,” Rodgers said. “Something [needs to be] rewired, or the emissions are different. You have to hook up a laptop [to the bus] just to find out what’s wrong. It’s the same with cars.”
Chad Ingold, a shop manager for Illinois Central School Bus, has worked with Rodgers for 16 years. He started out as a driver and worked his way up through the shop, with the aid of Rodgers’ mentorship. He said he has benefited from Rodgers' experience and knowledge, and has enjoyed hearing his stories about how buses have changed.
“It’s just fun listening to those stories of the old buses,” Ingold said. “He’s a wealth of knowledge. You can’t just hire anyone off the street anymore with that kind of knowledge under their belt.”
Rodgers worked with Laidlaw Education Services (now First Student) on implementing the company’s maintenance software in 2006, as it rolled out its new Reliability-Based Maintenance program to approximately 370 locations companywide, he said.
As part of the project, Rodgers helped conduct shop assessments; train shop managers and technicians on the new Vehicle Maintenance System (VMS), a data-collection, tracking, analysis, and management software system; and helped redesign work processes to eliminate wasted time, effort, and money.
Rodgers and Ingold then worked to apply Laidlaw’s philosophies and practices at the district. Rodgers updated the maintenance inspection forms and work orders used at their location, and those were eventually put into use companywide.
Additionally, over the last 10 years, Rodgers got behind the wheel when there weren’t enough drivers. He said he had some very positive experiences transporting students.
“Some of the little children bring a smile to your face when you’re having a bad day. They say ‘hi,’ give you a little hug,” he said. “It makes you feel a little better. Some of the kids are really great.”
Serving the community as part of the maintenance team was a very satisfying aspect of the job, providing a sense of accomplishment and purpose, Rodgers pointed out.
“It’s an excellent team that provides a vital service to the community."
Rodgers is also proud that he managed to ensure children had a safe trip to and from school over the past 40 years.
“Whether I was behind the wheel driving a route or underneath the bus performing maintenance, I have taken my job very seriously, as it came with a lot of responsibility.”
The past few decades have flown by, he added.
“You wake up one day, and it’s all behind you. I didn’t plan on it turning into a career. I never even thought about it.”
Rodgers officially retired on Nov. 30.
In retirement, Rodgers has slowed down and spent more time with his wife, he said. He also recently began driving a Head-Start bus route for Apple Bus Co.