CHAPMAN, Kan. — After 53 years of driving school buses, Ila Beemer has turned in her keys, having driven her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Beemer lived 28 miles from Chapman High School when she started driving a Type A school bus in 1954 while she was a junior in high school. She continued to drive through her junior and senior years. As one of a few students with a valid driver’s license, she was asked to drive a "feeder bus," picking up students in the rural area where she lived and bringing them to the main route bus. She earned a dollar a day.
After graduating high school, Beemer went to college, worked, got married, and had a family before returning to school bus driving in 1966, when she came aboard the newly formed Chapman Unified School District 473. She drove for the district for 51 years.
During her first year at the district, she drove a Chevy car with a removable sign on top that said "School Bus." The following year she had a nine-passenger bus and worked her way up to a bigger Type A bus.
“I was asked to drive a Type C school bus, but said no, because if I did that I would probably have to drive a big wheat truck on the farm,” she explained. “I learned early on, once you start something you’re stuck with it.”
Being married to a farmer, a man who also happened to be her grade-school sweetheart, meant needing to help supplement their income. So Beemer kept driving, since the job also provided the opportunity for her to have the same schedule as her children.
Even after Beemer’s children grew up, she continued driving.
“We had to pay health insurance on our own and there was always something extra that we needed,” she said. “Next thing I knew, I was hauling my grandchildren.”
The school district covers 550 square miles, with four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school, according to a Kansas Department of Education report. Three of those elementary schools are located in rural areas along state highways; the rest are located in Chapman. There are 1,100 students in the district, and around 70% of them ride buses.
Randy Heller, transportation director for Chapman USD 473, said that because the district is so spread out, with children often living more than 20 miles from their respective schools, drivers take their buses home at night.
Beginning her route at 6:15 a.m., Beemer estimated that she drove around 70 miles a day, totaling four hours.
Despite the early mornings, she said that she enjoyed being able to drive so many children and watch them grow up over the years.
“It is important to take an interest in each student and what they like to do,” Beemer added. “Let them know you care about them. It has been enjoyable watching the many students I have hauled grow up and see what career path they chose to follow. Some came back to live in this area with their families, and I hauled their children.”
While driving allowed her to spend time with her family and help supplement their income, Beemer said it wasn’t without its challenges, especially when it came to student behavioral issues.
“Children’s bullying, lack of respect for others, and discipline problems make driving a school bus very challenging,” she said. “I say along with the other requirements for driving a bus it would be helpful if one had a degree in child psychology, human relations, nursing, and law enforcement.”
Heller agreed, relaying the story of how a kindergartner chewed off the top of his seat on the bus one day.
“[Beemer] talked to him and he showed her how he did it: just put his teeth right down there on the seat and he just started chewing like a little mouse. She said, ‘Why did you do that?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Beemer officially retired in May. While she is full of mostly fond memories from her driving days, she said she enjoys being able to stay up until 11 p.m. without worrying about having to wake up early the next morning.
“There are some things I will not miss, like scraping ice off the windshield at 6 a.m. and driving in fog or on snow and ice.”
Beemer added that she plans to spend more time gardening, taking produce to the farmers market, exhibiting at the county and state fairs, and doing what kept her driving a school bus for so long — spending time with family.