WICHITA, Kan. — Richard "Zack" Zackula, a stalwart of the school transportation community in Kansas, was set to retire today after a long career of helping customers with bus and mobility equipment issues.

Zackula started as a "go-fer" at Kansas Truck Equipment Co. 48 years ago, when it had only been a Blue Bird school bus distributor for a year. Now, he retires as general manager.

“When I came to work here, I thought I’d be lucky to last six months," said Zackula, who was 21 when he was hired. "The youngest guy in the shop was over 40." Yet within three years, Zackula was promoted to shop foreman.

School bus business takes flight
Early on, Kansas Truck Equipment primarily sold and installed farm bodies — as many as 150 a year. By getting into the school bus business, the company was able to expand its market to include the entire state.

“At that time, a district could buy a bus for $6,000 or less," Zackula said. "The guys in the shop could make an extra $35 or $40 on the weekend delivering buses. We were always looking for ways to make a few extra bucks."

Service Manager Karl Gragg would rent a small plane and fly Zackula and other staff members to a Blue Bird plant that was in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

"He’d land in a cornfield — literally," Zackula said. "We’d drive the bus back to Wichita. The next weekend, we’d deliver the bus somewhere in Kansas."

Zackula recalled a time when they delivered a bus to Tribune, Kan. "Karl landed on a sod airstrip to pick us up.”

Commitment to safety, customer service
With Kansas Truck Equipment's addition of the school bus business, safety became a critical issue because of the "precious cargo” that each bus carries. In the 1980s, the mobility equipment business took off when wheelchair lifts began to be installed on school buses.

Many in Kansas know Zackula as the person to call for issues with wheelchair lifts, wheelchair vans, hand controls or anything automotive related to mobility.

“I feel lucky,” Zackula said. “I have customers from all over the state — many I consider my friends. ... I’ve always enjoyed coming to work. I’ve had good people to work with, and they’ve let me do my thing.”

In retirement, Zackula said he plans to spend more time in his garage working on cars — a lifelong interest.

He bought his first car, a 1949 Plymouth convertible, for $250 when he was 14 years old.

“I worked all summer to save the $250 I needed to buy that car so I could drive to junior high school in the fall,” he recalled. By his 18th birthday, he had owned 20 cars.

Currently, Zackula is building a 1932 Ford Roadster.