More than half a century of changes, and quite a few shower curtains later, Laural Hayes will finally retire from the school transportation profession.
In 1968, The Beatles were at the top of the charts, a postage stamp cost 6 cents, Apollo 8 orbited the moon for the first time, and Laural Voelker stepped into a school bus to begin more than half a century of driving.
Money was tight for the mother of three children under the age of 7.
“There was never enough money for a shower curtain for our new bathroom,” Voelker said (now Laural Hayes).
One of her neighbors who drove a small vehicle for the Niskayuna, New York school district suggested that Hayes give it a try. “I can drive a station wagon!” she thought. At the time, driving a wagon did not even require a special license. However, the transportation supervisor had other plans and asked Hayes to try out on a big bus. She did, and she received her license with the added benefit of better pay; big bus drivers were paid more than wagon drivers. She thought it would be a nice job for a little while, but that “little while” became 53 years.
Hayes was only the third woman to drive a big bus in Niskayuna, and she excelled at it. Learning to drive a large bus was exciting, and she found that driving was second nature to her. Several years down the road when she moved to another district, Laural began participating in bus rodeos. In the rodeos, drivers competed against each other using their skills in precision driving as well as their knowledge of laws. This included obstacle courses, written exams, and vehicle inspections. Hayes won first prize twice in area rodeos, and she placed 8th at the state competition in Albany, New York.
While traffic laws and driving strategies have not changed much over the years, many other things regarding school bus transportation have. In 1968, starting pay for a bus driver in Niskayuna was $2.70 an hour, well above the minimum wage of $1.60. There were no automatic transmissions, no power steering, no seatbelts, and no bus attendants. There were no adjustable or heated mirrors and no easy seat adjustment. Buses were not yet equipped with “Jersey lights” or extendable stop arms to warn motorists that children were boarding or disembarking; there were only yellow brake lights on the front of the bus. There was not even a two-way radio to communicate with dispatch.
“If something happened en-route, you were to send two students into a nearby home that had a phone, with a note showing what to tell dispatch,” she remembered.
Driving a school bus was a great fit for Hayes. She loved driving, and she loved the children. It was convenient to be able to go home between runs, as it allowed her to take care of her home, do laundry, and ride her bicycle. Back then, mothers brought their preschool children on the bus. Hayes’ two older children were able to ride along during her high school run before being dropped off at the elementary school, and her three-year-old stayed with her for all her runs. Then, as now, drivers were in great demand. More than once when the supervisor called Hayes in to cover a run, he offered to babysit her son if she would please just come in to drive.
When her family moved to Clifton Park, NY, she began driving for the Shenendehowa school district. It was 1977, and the bus parking lot was still all dirt. Many drivers were farmers, and they were able to take their buses home between bus runs. Drivers did not do “dry runs” to test their routes before the start of school, and there were no written policies on issues such as sexual harassment. Through the years, Hayes saw many changes in the transportation profession, but some things never changed. She feels the biggest challenge of driving was and is making sure students behave on the bus. From the beginning, she realized that it was all about respect.
“Respect the students, and they will respect you back,” she advised. Her other professional secret is to “just keep smiling!”
Hayes particularly enjoyed driving students on field trips, since it allowed her to go to new places and see new things. Summer YMCA field trips were especially fun, and in 1980 she got to be one of 50 drivers to assist in transportation for the Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. It was very exciting to be there at around the same time the USA Olympic hockey team beat Russia for the gold. Her fondest memories include receiving numerous notes and cards, some of which she still has, from students and co-workers.
“I used to love it when I’d drive a high school kid and they’d say, ‘I remember you. You were my kindergarten driver and you used to sing to us,’” she said. “This job has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done.”
Through all the years, every single time that Hayes turned in her key at the end of the day, she would send up a little prayer of gratitude: “Thank you, God, that no one has ever been hurt on my bus.”
After a successful 35-year career, Hayes decided to retire in 2003. One dispatcher remarked that she had probably driven nearly every student in the district at one point. She had driven children of students that she transported years ago, and she had even driven students who were now driving a bus for Shenendehowa. In retirement, however, she did not rest on her laurels. She immediately began working as a substitute bus driver and has done so for the past 18 years. Hayes chose to sub because she knew she would miss her job: her coworkers, driving, and the children. It was also nice to still have a paycheck to help pay for her new house. She will miss all of those things now that she has decided to be “really retired” at the end of this school year. After a remarkable career, more than half a century of changes, and quite a few shower curtains later, she feels it’s finally time to hang up the keys and begin a new chapter in her life. Through it all, she says, “I never once forgot the enormous responsibility of driving other people’s children….precious cargo indeed!”
Judy Mayfield is the transportation secretary for Shenendehowa Central School District She may be reached at email@example.com.