By Mark Mitten
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN For the past 54 years, Cokato resident Gary Schmieg has been driving school buses in Dassel, Cokato and Howard Lake. This spring, coinciding with his 77th birthday March 31, Schmieg officially retired from driving.
Born and raised in Howard Lake, Schmieg became a dairy farmer as a young man. Initially, he decided to take up driving a local school bus as a side job.
“I needed a little extra income,” he recalled. “I couldn’t punch a clock all day anyplace [since] I was farming. But, I started in April 1962.”
In the beginning, Schmieg was not much older than the high school seniors he transported. Many of his young passengers came from farming families, and were already familiar faces.
“I knew practically the whole district back in those days,” Schmieg said.
Juggling dairy farming and bus driving became a routine. In the mornings, Schmieg would rise early to milk cows. Then, he would drive his route in the Howard Lake area, and afterward go back to fieldwork and other chores. In the afternoon, he would repeat the process, driving school children home, and then once again return to finish up the farm work in the evenings.
The buses Schmieg drove back then were designed to carry 48 passengers, which was the largest-capacity bus at the time. In the fall of 1962, a new 54-passenger bus was introduced, and since Schmieg had been driving the longest route with the most kids, he was given the new bus to drive.
“Later on, they went to a 60- and 66-passenger [bus] now we’re up to 77-passenger [buses],” Schmieg explained.
“I’ve made a lot of miles driving . . . I’ve worn out about five brand new ones over the years,” Schmieg commented.
Schmieg recalls that Minnesota winters were harsher in his earlier years driving, and the buses did not have many of the modern conveniences. Mirrors and wipers could freeze up, and every driver carried along a scoop shovel to clear snow when necessary.
Today, there are technological advances such as heated mirrors and more efficient temperature-controlled vehicles, and superior mechanical designs that make driving itself easier.
“It was a different time,” Schmieg acknowledges. “When it was 20 or 30 below, we still had school. Snow could get bumper deep in those days because the roads weren’t plowed like they are today. Quite a change.”
There was a difficult period of time when Schmieg realized he needed to relinquish his route, and he quit driving for Howard Lake altogether. Schmieg’s first wife was diagnosed with cancer, and passed away in 1989. During her illness, as her condition worsened, Schmieg realized it was too difficult to continue driving and care for her effectively.
“I didn’t drive for a couple years, and then Cokato Transportation called and wanted me to start driving. I said, no, and they called me again . . . finally, I said I would drive,” he said, with a warm laugh. “I was glad I did, because as time went on, I retired from farming. For 27 years I was up every morning at 4:30 a.m. milking cows, and on the road at 6:30 a.m. to drive the bus.”
One of the best things Schmieg appreciated about driving a school bus was getting to know all the community children and their families. There were many instances over the years when he would bump into a local family at a store or restaurant, and one of the kids would recognize him and shout his name fondly or give him a hug.
As time went on, some of his young passengers grew up, became adults, and started families of their own and when their children became old enough to go to school, Schmieg would welcome them aboard his bus, as well.
“I wish I would have kept a log or a diary of some kind. So many comments kids have made to me, the little ones especially. They made me laugh so many times, it was so neat . . . I had a good route, and a good bunch of kids,” Schmieg said.
In January, Cokato Transportation threw Schmieg a retirement party. Many people attended, including children who rode the bus and their families, as well as friends and neighbors. As a gift, an engraved watch was presented to honor his service.
“My license was expiring on my birthday,” Schmieg said. “Fifty-four years of driving a bus without an accident, and I’m getting to a point . . . I just thought it was a good time to quit while I’m ahead.”
Now that he is no longer driving, Schmieg has other things to focus on. Both he and his wife, Ruth have many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to keep up with. Gary’s son, Mike, operates an organic dairy farm near Howard Lake, and Schmieg helps with the planting and harvesting, as well. Once a week, he still stops in at Cokato Transportation and has coffee with the drivers.
“When I look back on it, I guess if I had to do it over, I’d probably do it all over again,” Schmieg reflected. “It was always fun working with the drivers. Always had a good bunch of people, especially here at Cokato Transportation. It was just a nice outfit to work for.”