MERCED, Calif. — When Louk Markham got behind the wheel of a school bus on Thursday last week, it wasn't just any field trip — it was his final journey in a pupil transportation career that began nearly 40 years ago.

Markham, transportation supervisor at Merced City School District, ended his tenure the next day, April 12.

But Markham isn't retiring — he will, in his words, "retool and reinvent" himself for a new career. He will become fleet operations manager for Santa Clara County, a large county in the Bay Area of Northern California ("a completely different occupation," he notes).

Markham began his career in pupil transportation in 1974 at Downey (Calif.) Unified School District as a substitute school bus driver. He worked at several other operations in California before moving to Michigan, where he served as transportation manager at Portage Public Schools for 12 years.

While at Portage, Markham was instrumental in designing a new transportation facility. He also served as president of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation.

In his spare time, he wrote a book on one of his longtime interests: former school bus manufacturer Crown Coach Corp.

In 2011, Markham moved back to California, joining Merced City School District as transportation supervisor.

Markham told SBF that one of the key challenges during his career, both in California and in Michigan, has been maintaining driver staffing levels. He pointed to the amount of time and money involved in obtaining a CDL with P and S endorsements, Department of Motor Vehicles testing, physical exams, drug and alcohol testing, multiple background checks, etc.

"All this for a substitute, on-call driving position," he said. "Then, when they get hired for a regular route, most start with a four-hour position and a split shift for 180 days per year. While the starting wages are not too bad, it can still be tough."

Still, Markham noted that one of his favorite parts of pupil transportation management has been taking "newbies" and guiding them through the stages of training, watching them progress from novices to professional school bus drivers.

"I recently had the pleasure of meeting a driver who I hired about 20 years ago," Markham said. "She is now preparing to become a state certified instructor. That made me feel good about my hiring decision!"

Markham said that he has also appreciated the opportunities to meet other pupil transportation professionals and to share information at various workshops and conferences.

The highlight of his time as a school bus driver, Markham said, was watching his passengers grow up — and then even transporting some of their children.

On the surface, his final school bus trip last Thursday was fairly routine: shuttling a group of elementary students to the movies. But, given the occasion, it took on special significance.

"It was a good trip, and we had a safe return ... just like all of my trips have been through the years," Markham said. "Seeing the happy, smiling faces of the children and giving my pre-trip safety presentation on the bus was a memory I will not forget."