By Jen Bakken
The wheels on the bus have been successfully going round and round for the Stahlke family of Delano for 60 years.
For Stahlke Bus Service, those wheels have been successfully turning for both the Stahlke family and the Delano community.
Ensuring children get to and from school safely is no easy task, but Mel and Julie Bernick’s company has been more than just trustworthy transportation throughout the years they have been a strong part of the community.
Founded by Dwain and Ruth Stahlke in 1948, the business initially consisted of two buses, with one back-up, and three drivers to transport approximately 50 children.
First located in a Quonset hut on Franklin Avenue, the business moved to a location on Highway 12, near the movie theater, in 1956.
Fifteen years later, due to growth within the school district, a new building was built on three acres of land on County Line Road, which is still the current location of the business.
In 1982, Dwain and Ruth’s daughter, Julie, and her husband, Mel Bernick, purchased Stahlke Bus Service and still own and operate the business today.
With 36 employees, including five who are full-time, 25 large buses, four special education buses, and two vans, the business has obviously grown and now transports about 2,100 students from Delano Public Schools and parochial schools.
“I remember when the roads didn’t have names,” said Julie Bernick. “There weren’t numbers, and we used landmarks to get to and from homes. We’ve moved from a farm community to more of a bedroom community. With my parents owning the bus company, I think I’d been on every gravel road around here before I was 10 years old. There have been a lot of changes over the years.”
One recent change is area road construction, which has caused some challenges for the company. Bernick also predicted that parents would decide not to transport their own kids, because of the construction and high fuel prices. Her prediction was accurate, and now more school children are taking the bus.
Fuel costs have presented a challenge to the company, and the west side of town has been an unpredictable difficulty.
The Bernicks are trying to ensure buses aren’t over crowded, and unfortunately, some children have been late to school because it is nearly impossible to predict the amount of traffic during the road construction or drive time on any particular day, she said.
“There’s not much we can do about that,” said Bernick. “We try, but one day traffic isn’t so bad on the west side, and the next it’s backed up to Dairy Queen. What can we really do? We could adjust times, but then some days kids could end up sitting on the bus waiting to go into school for 20 minutes.”
Mel and Julie Bernick have two children, Jay and Katie. Jay works for Stahlke Bus Service, and also owns Emerald Green. He is married to Rayme, and they have one daughter with a second child on the way.
Katie graduated from Delano High School in 2008 and is attending Ridgewater College in Willmar for photography.
“Last year was crazy,” said Bernick. “So much happened, and all during Katie’s senior year.”
While running the family business, a year ago the Bernick’s placed Ruth Stahlke in a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s disease, and in March, she passed away due to a massive stroke.
During this same time, Dwain Stahlke, who has bone marrow cancer, had two heart attacks, and they also found out Mel Bernick had prostate cancer.
“Now dad is doing much better,” said Bernick. “He had three stints put in, and is really doing well, and Mel has a clean bill of health now.”
August marked Julie’s 30th year with Stahlke Bus Service, and she has been very involved in other things as well.
She began the women’s Jaycee’s chapter in Delano before the men and women merged together, and for more than 15 years, she served as a 4-H leader.
As the first woman ever elected to the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association (MSBOA), Bernick remained with the association for nine years, serving as the organization’s president from 2001-2004.
In her spare moments, which can be few and far between, Julie enjoys horses. She got her first horse at the age of sixteen, and with her daughter, she still keeps very busy raising quarter horses. They have traveled to many states showing them together.
Woodworking, hunting, and fishing are Mel’s hobbies, and he can always be found building things. He also recently restored a 1953 Willys Jeep.
With their company, the couple has strived to be involved in the community. Whether through Dollars for Scholars, Relay for Life, or Stuff the Bus during the holidays, the Bernicks try to give back to their community.
In her 30 years with the company, Julie has found one has to be a very detail-oriented person in the bussing industry.
“In my industry, you have to dot your i’s and cross your t’s,” she said. “And double check, then re-check again. I don’t think anyone realizes the amount of detail we go to in order to be successful in this industry.”
Successful is something Stahlke Bus Service has been for 60 years, and the wheels on the bus will continue to go round and round for many years to come.