MONROE, Wis. — Larry Leverton has been a dedicated school bus driver for 60 years and doesn’t plan to quit anytime soon.
After being laid off from his job as a machinist at Fairbanks Morse Engine in 1957, he went to work as a school bus driver for Lucille Alston Weuthrich, a local contractor. He continued driving school buses over the years for a handful of other contractors, and eventually ended up at Lamers Bus Lines in 2012, where he works today.
Leverton has seen quite a few changes over the several decades of his school bus driving career. For example, when he started driving, there were no automatic transmissions, and the engines were gasoline-powered.
“They didn’t really have diesel until the 1950s, 1960s,” Leverton said.
The electronics of the engine were also different, he added; they used to have an ignition coil on them. Also, back then, drivers didn’t have the benefits of power steering and air ride suspension and air ride seats.
“They’re more comfortable [now], and easier to drive, because you don’t have to shift them,” Leverton said. “And they ride so much better with the air ride suspension, and handle better, too. It’s easier on you. You don’t get as tired.”
And then there’s the sizes of the buses he has driven. His first buses held 48 passengers, and he now drives a bus with nearly double that capacity, at 78 passengers.
Transporting more children today has presented the challenge of behavior management, he said, which was somewhat simpler in his earlier years of driving, when parents tended to entrust the drivers with more latitude to discipline their children if they got out of hand.
“Years ago, [parents didn’t say], ‘Well my son or daughter wouldn’t do that,’” Leverton explained. For example, if a student refused to sit in their seat, “all you’d have to do is just grab hold of their lapel and pick them up and push them, and you could do that.”
He added that he would always explain to parents why he took disciplinary measures, and the response was usually supportive.
“A couple times [when] I told parents, [they said], ‘They’re going to get the same thing after they get home, after what you told me. They’re not going to act like that on the bus.’ They agreed with you 100%.”
However, one aid now for helping to keep student behavior in check and update parents on any incidents is onboard video cameras.
“If [there’s] any question [and parents say], ‘Oh, my boy or girl wouldn’t have done that,’ well, let’s get the flash drive and check it out.”
What Leverton loves most about being a school bus driver is the camaraderie he has with other drivers, that they help one another, and that he can impart wisdom to younger, greener drivers.
“With as many years as I drove, I get asked a lot of questions and for input. I feel proud of that.”
And some of that camaraderie extends to some good-natured teasing, such as with his former manager, Justin Harris. (Harris is now a transportation coordinator for Mount Horeb [Wis.] Area School District.)
Harris found out about a school bus driver in Maine who finally retired when he turned 91, and told Leverton that he should make that a goal. He also offered, Leverton recalled, to buy him some Omaha steaks and throw him a party if he was still driving at 91, and Leverton took him up on the offer. Although Harris moved on to a different job before the bet could be settled, with Leverton not quite in his nineties yet, Harris gave him the steaks at a party at the end of the school year last June.
Additionally, Harris, who managed Leverton for five years, noted his former employee’s dedication as he reflected on his experience working with him.
“He only missed one whole day because the hospital would not let him drive,” Harris recalled. “He told them he would come back after the route, but they would not buy that story.”
“His smile and laughter are what makes that man someone you wish you could be," Harris added. "It was a true honor to be part of that for those years. ... I manage a great team of drivers at my current job, but not a Larry.”
As for how long Leverton will end up driving, he said he plans to keep going as long as he is able.
“I enjoy doing it. I feel proud that at my age, I can still get out and about.”