Jan. 22, 2007

Looking back at 35 years behind the wheel

Delano’s Bonnie Weege says children keep her on her toes, keep her young

By Kelsey Linden
Staff Writer

With a smile on her face and a wave to all children who pass by, Bonnie Weege has been having a “fun ride,” transporting children to and from school for the past 35 years.

Back in 1972, when bus company owner John Stahlke first approached Weege with a job offer, Weege’s first thought was “are you crazy?”

At first, she dubiously said no. But knowing Weege would bring joy to children of all ages, Stahlke gave her a second chance to think about it.

“Well, the very next day, he called back, so I didn’t have much time to think about it,” Weege laughed.

At that point in her life, driving a school bus just seemed to fit into her life. Her four kids were grown to the point where they did not require constant care and attention. After looking over her options, Weege agreed, knowing the job would enable her to have summers free to spend with her children.

When Weege began the job, Stahlke took her out on the bus, and before she knew it, she was in the driver’s seat with anywhere from 30 to 60 kids in the seats behind her.

All she needed was a driver’s license and she was ready for the road.

Now, there is more of an “extensive training” program that all drivers must undertake before they are given their own bus route.

The first days begin with safety training. Generally, all drivers need to perform a certain amount of “one-on-one” hours with a trained professional.

A driver must have a physical every two years, and a driver is also required to retake the written driving test every time he or she renews his or her driver’s license.

Every now and then, all the drivers go through drug testing. At times, Weege misses the old days when there was no such thing as “drug testing.”

There is more to the job than driving from place to place.

“It’s a responsibility. You wear a lot of different hats,” Weege said. “You’re a nurturer, a doctor, a counselor, a mediator. You’re a shoulder to cry on. Every day is something different.”

Always possessing a soft spot in her heart for children, Weege said, “I’ve always liked kids. They keep me young.”

When dealing with so many kids at one time, Weege believes that as an authoritative leader to children, it is essential for her to “earn their respect.”

Touching on her first years as a bus driver, Weege added, “Times have changed. Years ago, we demanded respect. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I feel things started to change. You have to earn that respect.”

“If I see two children doing something, and I know they did it, I still have to listen to their side of the story,” she said. “I think that’s how you earn respect. They think that ‘she cares and she’s going to listen to me.’”

She added, “Give respect to get it back, that’s my philosophy.”

When asked about the kids on the bus, Weege answered, “My kids are all good. They know that they have to sit and that there is no changing of seats. They can talk and have fun, but I have a lot of responsibility and I expect them to sit so I don’t have to worry about them.”

Shifting her eyes to the right, Weege smiled, as she said, “I have mischievous children, but none are bad. They just know what I expect of them and it just makes the trip a whole lot safer.”

Out of all the children that she transports, Weege loves the preschool age the best.

“Oh, I love them. They come up with some of the cutest things. I love the preschool kids. You never know what they’re going to say,” she said. “The cute things they say just make my day.”

“You know, out of all the good-byes that you give, I probably get like 10 good-byes back on a lucky day. In the mornings, I probably get about five good mornings,” she added.

Weege likes to greet the kids with a warm welcome when they start out their day.

Weege is on call nine hours a day. Out of those nine hours, Weege guesses that she probably works eight.

In the morning, she arrives at the bus garage by 7 a.m., and begins transporting the elementary, middle, and senior high students. She said every day her schedule is a little bit different.

In the 1970s, Weege said, drivers did split shifts. She started her days at about 5:30 a.m., and ended about 7 p.m.

“Usually, everybody just stays with their same route,” Weege said. “I’ve had this route for about 14 years. When we started, we put on a lot more miles. We drove three to four miles before we picked up another kid. Now that our community has grown so much, we have more buses.”

As a bus driver, one always hopes to avoid accidents and, thankfully, Weege has never been in a real serious accident. However, in the winter, she has “gotten stuck.”

When she first began the job, there was no radio for communication, “So, we carried a shovel. We tried to shovel our way out. And if we couldn’t, we had to wait for a car to come by to call the bus garage,” she explained.

Over the years, Weege has developed numerous friendships with her co-workers.

“With all of us drivers, it’s kind of like you become your own little family. There aren’t that many employees. Our boss probably employs, like, 40. I’ve worked with a lot of these people for years,” she said.

People may recognize Weege as a past Mrs. Santa Claus, as she upheld the title for 20 years until the program was discontinued. She was also named the Minnesota Transportation Specialist of the Year in 1997.

“That was an honor,” she said.

Born and raised in Delano, Weege was unfortunate to lose her father at the age of six. Her mother was expecting her fourth child at the time. During that one month, their house also burnt to the ground.

Even at a young age, as stressful as it was, Weege will never forget the compassion and kindness from her community.

“Everyone in the community helped,” she said. “Delano has been very good to me. It’s been a wonderful community to live in.”

Her childhood also makes Christmas very special for her.

“I love Christmas,” she said. “It’s just my time of year. I love to give to people and remember what they’ve done for me.”

With her husband, Kenneth, Weege had four kids in four-and-a half-years. Kenneth retired two years ago, and has yet to master the art of “cooking and cleaning.”

As far as hobbies go, Weege enjoys knitting, crocheting, scrap-booking, and art making.

Living within a six-block radius her entire life, Weege has grown to love the Minnesota weather. However, she claims, “As you get older, you kind of enjoy the warm weather. But, I don’t think I would live anywhere else.”

Her children have “all graduated from college and they are all married. I have eight grandchildren and I’m still working,” she said.

When the question as to when Weege might want to retire was asked, she paused in thought before she answered, “I haven’t really thought about it,” she said. “I’m afraid if I retire, I’ll get old fast. I think kids keep you young, keep you on your toes, keep you alert.”

There is more to driving a bus than meets the eye. Weege believes her job is a responsibility.

“You have to be able to laugh with them, have fun with them, yet you have to have their respect,” she said. “You have to be able to work with children and like children. It’s not a physical drive, it’s a mental drive.”

Weege continued, “There’s always a point where I say ‘oh what am I doing?’ There is so much responsibility. Their lives are in your hands. I’m still doing this, so I guess there was never a point where I was going to quit. I love my job and I love the kids, but it’s not for everybody. It’s a mind game.”

There are many parts of the job that continue to drive Weege away from retirement.

Everything, down to seeing her kids change over summer break, lose a tooth, or get a new haircut, all make the mental aspect of Weege’s job all the more special.

She concluded saying, “I work for a really good company. They are really good to me. I also work with a lot of nice people. I’ve made a lot of friends throughout the years.

“But, like I said, it’s the kids. They keep me young.”

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