TRAER, Iowa — Chris and Carol Detje have driven school buses for North Tama County Community School District for 55 years, which is only one year shorter than their marriage, two identities that seem to intertwine.
“Why we’ve stuck to it for so many years? I guess we couldn’t see ourselves retiring and we love what we do,” Carol said. “Everyone says, ‘But 55 years?’ And I say, ‘Well my husband remembers our anniversary because he adds one more year to how long he’s been driving a bus.”
Chris started driving school buses for extra cash back in 1962 when he returned from serving in the National Guard’s aviation unit. When a position opened up, Carol started driving, too.
Through the years they’ve gathered plenty of stories — Carol said she wants to write a book about all her memories. She recalled the frightening moment when her brakes went out as she approached the decline of a hill and she was forced to coast the bus into a pasture. The bus safely came to a halt at the opening of a creek.
“I thought, ‘Please, God, I’ll continue driving but don’t give me any more of these.’ That was the scariest thing that happened,” she said.
More comical memories include the time a student brought aboard a snake in a jar, shaking the jar to prove the snake was dead. But the student neglected to tell her about the other snake that was alive in his pocket, which ended up escaping and slithering down the aisle until Carol kicked it out the door.
“It’s just a thrill to be a bus driver,” she said. “If someone is bored and they want something different, then driving a school bus can be it.”
Anecdotes aside, they have formed meaningful bonds with both staff and students. Chris Detje has not driven a school bus since he suffered from a stroke last October, and the Traer community has been nothing but supportive.
“We’ve received donations in the mail, and cards and letters and flowers. People have been knocking on the door to see what they can do for us,” Carol said. “We’ve been surprised because, until his stroke happened, we didn’t know that we’d touched so many lives.”
One supportive community member is the school district’s transportation director and bus mechanic, Joel Larsen, who admires the Detjes and their lifelong quality of service.
“You could always ask them to pick up an extra trip or help out; sometimes they would do it just for the fun of it,” Larsen said. “Whenever they hang up their keys, they will be missed by me and our school. It has been an honor to work with them.”
Over the past 55 years, Chris and Carol have driven over 1 million miles, according to Larsen.
The Detjes’ journey as school bus drivers is very different culturally now than it was when they started. Changes they’ve witnessed include an increase in rules for discipline, improved technology (such as cameras that monitor student behavior), and less pressure to maintain the condition of their buses.
“We used to wash the school buses ourselves and make sure they got to the garage if something needed [to be] fixed,” she said. “Today, we don’t have to do that because we have a mechanic.”
Chris and Carol also earn a significantly higher wage than when they started over five decades ago, back when they only earned $98 a month. But for the Detjes, it’s not about the money. It’s about their love of driving and everything that comes along with it.
“I love being out on the road for the first snow of the season. I love the kids. I just love driving a bus,” Carol said. “I was 18 years old when I started, and I’m 74 now. When the doctor tells me I can’t do it anymore, that’s when I’ll quit.”