<p>David Welborn (left) is retiring after nearly half a century with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina. He is seen here with Anthony Avant, fleet maintenance supervisor.</p>

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — After 46 years of working in maintenance for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, David Welborn knows school buses.

“When I first arrived here, mechanics told me that David could just walk by a bus and tell you what was wrong with it,” said Darrell Taylor, the school system’s executive director of transportation.

Welborn could have retired 16 years ago with 30 years of experience. Why did he choose to stick around?

“I like the people — I like the work,” he said. “It keeps me out of trouble.”

His wife, Linda, retired this spring. At the end of August, he plans to join her in retirement. He might even sleep in a bit.

Early riser

Welborn is a senior mechanic for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. During the regular school year, he oversees the school system’s Carver School Road shop in the morning. That means getting up at 3:15 a.m. so he can be in the shop by 4:30. Once he retires, he imagines getting up at 6 a.m. — no later, because he wants to poke around a bit on the family farm while the day is still mild.

Anthony Avant, fleet maintenance supervisor, said that Welborn is irreplaceable not only because he knows so much, but also because of who he is.

“I have never met anybody that cares more about his family and his work family,” Avant said, adding that Welborn is as dependable as they come. “If I ask him to do something, it’s as good as done.”

Farm skills

Welborn came by his skills as a mechanic naturally. Growing up on a farm in southeastern Forsyth County, he learned to work on tractors, hay balers, and other equipment.

“I picked it up,” he said.

Welborn was born with a double cleft palate — a double split in the roof of the mouth. He had his first operation when he was 6 weeks old. By the time he was in his early 20s, he had had eight operations. Recovery time from operations kept him out of school for some periods, and it took Welborn a couple of extra years to graduate from high school.

Student driver

Welborn went to high school in the days when North Carolina students could drive a school bus, and he did that for two years.

During summers, he worked finishing drywall at first. Then he was invited to work in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools garage in the summer before his senior year.

After he graduated from high school in 1971, he went back to work for the school system that summer. Outside of work, it was a rough summer. His grandmother died. One of his uncles died. His best friend was killed in a car accident.

That was also the summer that a court ordered Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools to achieve a higher degree of integration, which the school system did by rearranging districts and doing significantly more busing.

As Welborn remembers it, the school system went from 200 or so buses to 400 buses. With all the extra work that entailed, he was invited to stick around when the next school year started.

Fueling up

Welborn spent the next couple of years driving a fuel truck to fill the tanks of schools buses. He also changed tires and did anything else that needed doing.

After driving the fuel truck for two-and-a-half years, Welborn was promoted to mechanic. In the years that followed, he was sometimes based in one of the school system’s shops. He would work on transmissions, brakes, clutches — whatever needed attention.

During some periods, he would serve as a road mechanic, going out to work on school buses that had broken down.

Whatever Welborn was asked to do, he would do it, Avant said.

Added complexity

Through the years, Welborn has seen all sorts of changes in school buses. In the early days, you could tell right away what the problem was and could fix it with a wrench and other basic tools, he said.

Over time, everything became increasingly sophisticated. Although buses are definitely safer than they once were, Welborn said, there is much more that can break, and, without hooking the bus up to a computer, it may not be clear what the problem is.

Trying to figure it all out sometimes means laughing to keep from cussing, he added.

Taylor, the executive director of transportation, said that the department will be sorry to see Welborn go.

“The garage will never be the same with David gone,” Taylor said. “I wish David the very best on his retirement.”

Kim Underwood is communications specialist for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.