BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN What started with three buses in 70 years ago has grown to a fleet of more than 40 vehicles operated by more than 40 employees, including five full-time employees.
Dwain and Ruth Stahlke started Stahlke Bus Service out of a Quonset hut on Franklin Avenue in 1948, when they transported about 50 students.
In 1956, the Stahlkes moved the business to a new location on Highway 12 west of Delano. Due to growth of the school district in 1971, Stahlke Bus Service moved to a new location at 5280 County Line Road.
In 1982, the Stahlkes’ daughter and son-in-law, Julie and Mel Bernick, purchased the business. During their ownership, daily ridership grew to more than 2,100 students, including Head Start and special needs students.
Their son, Jay, grew up around the business.
“There are still a few employees who would remember me being little,” he said.
He began working at Stahlke in 2003, and his wife, Rayme, joined him in 2008. They took over the business in 2013.
Jay said it is common for bussing companies to be passed down from generation to generation.
“Either this, or it’s a big company,” he said.
Stahlke is a family business in more ways than one.
“It is a pretty close-knit family,” Rayme said of everyone who works for Stahlke.
“We work side-by-side with all our employees,” Jay added. “We get out and drive. We don’t just sit in the office . . . We all drive. That’s a requirement.”
Employees range in age from young 20s to late 70s.
“The truly diverse group of people that is here is a lot of fun,” Rayme said. “ . . . It’s a fun group to be around.”
They all work together to transport the kids in the community.
“Obviously, the kids are the main reason we’re here,” Rayme said. “Transporting them is what we live for.”
Stahlke works closely with school employees, and vice versa.
“They are an advocate for us, and we are an advocate for them,” Jay said.
That relationship helps Stahlke stem the tide of changes and regulations over the years.
Costs of doing business have increased, with the cost of buses up about 40 percent over the past 15 years.
Finding employees is also a challenge.
“It’s a nationwide epidemic of a driver shortage,” Rayme said. “We get most of our drivers from referrals from other drivers; people talking them into it. They end up being the best bus drivers because they know what they’re getting into because they had a friend driving bus.”
“In the current economy, we are always hiring,” Jay added.
Making sure all drivers, including new hires, are trained is a priority.
One longtime driver took her driving test in her own vehicle. Now, driving a bus requires six weeks of training.
That helps prevent serious accidents.
“Traveling 2,000 miles a day, you’re always going to have something happen,” Rayme said.
“It’s all minor stuff, which is pretty common throughout the industry,” Jay added. “I don’t think we’ve ever had significant injuries from any accident. I’m pretty sure there was only one bus that was totaled.”
In addition to their training, drivers take their job very seriously, Rayme said.
She said she believes they all love kids, which is a positive, considering how well they can get to know them over the years.
“If you think about it, if you’re comparing a bus driver and a teacher, the teacher has those kids every day for a school year. If these bus drivers don’t change routes, they can have the same kids from kindergarten through graduation,” Rayme said. “It’s fun for them to watch them grow up and move on.”
Some drivers have also transported multiple generations of the same families.
Drivers, past and present riders, and other community members are invited to celebrate 70 years of Stahlke during an event Saturday at Riverside Commons, located at 10 Bridge Ave. E.
Employees, their significant others, family members, and a few individuals from the bus industry will enjoy a private dinner together.
At 8 p.m., the public is invited to join them and enjoy the celebration, including live music from the Harwood Four from 8 p.m. until midnight.
The celebration is just one example of the Stahlkes interacting with the community. They also support, sponsor, and donate to a number of school- and community-related events and causes.
As Stahlke celebrates 70 years, the Bernicks are eying the future.
They have two daughters, 11-year-old Hanley and 9-year-old Olive.
“We don’t know if they’ll be interested or not,” Rayme said. “It seems every other week, one is interested, and then they’re not. We don’t really know what the future holds.”
“We hope for 20 more years,” Jay concluded. “If the kids want to take it to 100 years, it’s up to them.”