HIGGINSVILLE, Mo. — After becoming the first female school bus driver in her community, driving students for more than half a century and witnessing many changes along the way, Brenda Thoman has retired.
Thoman, who drove a bus for Lafayette County C-1 School District for 52 years, officially retired on Nov. 18. She worked most recently for school bus contractor Apple Bus, as well as several other contractors throughout her career, as a regular education and special-needs driver and as a safety trainer.
The idea of driving a school bus hadn’t occurred to Thoman when she was selling Avon products door-to-door, because there were no women who were bus drivers in the area, she said. Then, one late December day in 1963, she stopped by the home of a couple who owned some school buses, as part of her sales job. The wife told Thoman that a bus driver had had a nervous breakdown and they didn’t know where they were going to get a replacement driver when school started again in January.
“Out of the blue, I said, ‘Would you consider a woman driver?’” she recalled.
Thoman didn’t get an answer just then, but soon after, the bus owner husband asked Thoman’s husband for permission to ask her to drive a school bus.
“Things have changed, haven’t they?” Thoman laughed.
As a mother of two, Thoman thought the job would be convenient because she could work while her children were in school and be off work when they were home.
However, taking on the role of being the first female school bus driver in the community at the time was not without challenges. Many in the area thought that a woman couldn’t drive a bus because the vehicles had no power steering and the stick shift was on the floor, making the bus difficult to handle, Thoman said.
“There was quite a bit of talk around it,” she added.
Still, Thoman easily proved herself. Part of her route covered the top of a hill where some older men in the community gathered for coffee. After a week or so of driving her route, which entailed coming up to a stop sign at the top of that hill using the stick shift and hard clutches, some of those men told the bus owners that Thoman had "passed the test," because she could take off from a stop sign on a hill without rolling backward.
“They thought I was going to make it,” she said.
Over the years, Thoman has seen significant changes in the quality of the buses and the way student discipline is handled.
Quality of buses has improved greatly, she said. When she started driving, everything was manual, from the stop arm to the door openers, and the buses were much colder in the winter for drivers – her buses didn’t have heaters in the front.
Additionally, she said expectations of schools, parents, and the students themselves on discipline for misbehavior on the bus are very different now.
“Parents and schools expected you to discipline the kids a lot more than is acceptable now,” Thoman explained. “When I started, if a child was belligerent or dangerous to other kids, you could put them off the bus. You can’t do that anymore.”
In her career, Thoman learned the importance of safety above all else. When she started driving, she said, she knew it was important to be a safe driver, but she also thought it was important to be a friend to all the kids. Then, she became a driver safety trainer, holding that job from 1990 to 2006.
“The importance of keeping the kids safe and teaching them the right way to ride the bus became the most important thing to me,” Thoman added.
Coming from a family of school bus drivers, Sherri Veach, terminal manager at Apple Bus, knows what makes a good one, and said that one of her biggest career accomplishments has been having Thoman as a driver.
She noted that Thoman has been accident-free her entire school bus driving career.
“Fifty-two years is a big deal. I am very lucky to have Brenda as a driver and a friend. She has listened to me and given me advice. You couldn’t ask for a better person.”
What Thoman enjoyed most about driving a school bus was building relationships with students — particularly those in need of more attention — and when they came to her as adults to tell her that she was a positive influence on them.
“They give you a lot of trouble and then let you know that you helped them,” she said. “Makes you feel like you’re doing something good.”
“I always felt it was a privilege to get to transport students, for parents to trust you with their children."
In retirement, Thoman plans to travel with her husband of 57 years around the U.S. in their RV and possibly take a trip to Israel.