Carl Poper puts the bus in park

PAT FRIDGEN
Carl Poper watched the last batch of kids board as he concluded 47 years of driving a school bus. One family gave him a parting present, a blanket embroidered with a bus and the statement ‘Thanks for the great ride.’

After untold hundreds of children and thousands of miles, Carl Poper applied the brakes on his school bus for the last time on Dec. 23. He walked away from a parking lot of Greencastle-Antrim School District, retiring from a career of transporting students for 47 years. The feat amazes school personnel, the other drivers, his riders and the families who counted on him day after day, year after year.

Poper, 70, will be missed, a statement echoed by everyone who was aware of his retirement plans.

For Poper, the time was right. He refused to hold out to the half century mark. "There comes a time," he said. "I stuck with it until I thought my rocking chair looked better. I guess I'll miss it, but now I can listen to the monitor as the other drivers discuss the weather and not worry about it. I'll sleep in."

His wife Emma Jean will retire in January from Gibbles Potato Chips and then the couple will make their annual trip to Florida, but perhaps stay a little longer. They want to get to Nashville and take an Alaskan cruise in the future. Poper will continue his other interests, including camping, hunting and sports.

Word got out at the Dec. 3 school board meeting, when superintendent Greg Hoover made note of the milestone. Hoover had ridden Poper's bus as a ninth grader on the basketball team. "I thought he was old then," he quipped. "Obviously, he wasn't." He recalled that 'Pope' handed out fireballs to the players after the games.

Through the years

"Time went by and by," Poper said of the many years that brought him to this day.

He was hired in 1962, while still milking and farming. He became a quick change artist to accomodate two morning runs, two mid-day kindergarten runs and two afternoon runs. "I was wearing my clothes out from the inside, from changing so often."

From the beginning his route was always the northern portion of Antrim Township. He observed changes through the decades, including better vehicles. The earlier buses had lower backs on the seats, with metal frames. "If a kid bumped it he could bust a face or lips," Poper commented. The newer models have padded rims, providing more safety for the riders.

He went out whenever school was in session, but insisted winter was worse in the 1960s and '70s. He saw much more snow than in recent years and remembered the day overnight rain had frozen. He put chains on the tires and headed out on the ice. He drove two miles in treacherous conditions as far as Guitner Church, then learned school had been cancelled.

Poper considered himself lucky as far as the students were concerned. Most were good passengers. "Now and then I had a bad kid to take care of with the principal."

Some of them still ride, which is why he didn't tell the high school students he was on his last day. "Some of them in the front seat are pretty naughty," he said, "but they put themselves there."

He did inform the younger children, who rode his later route. Several cried that he would be leaving.

Poper did not have any accidents during his career, at least "none that were my fault. Someone on Center Square ran into me. I got my picture in the paper that time."

He also had a pretty good record with delivering his charges. "Once a boy fell asleep on the bus. He came and knocked on my door. That was my only neglect. I didn't check the bus."

Today safety measures are in place to require the driver to walk to the back of the bus at the end of the route or an alarm will go off.

During the rides Poper played country music on the radio. The children would ask him to play the popular stuff of the day. "No, not as long as I'm driving," he would respond. However, in Decembers he would play Christmas music.

Poper drove for many school functions after hours. He especially enjoyed the trips to Wallops Island on Chincoteague with science students. He hauled band students, athletes, and entire classes as far as Charlottesville, Vir. and New York City.

He has fond memories of spending time with the other school bus drivers, and the folks in the administration office. And bottom line, he stayed with his job because he liked the work.

"I enjoy driving. I've always liked to do it."

We'll miss him

Bev Bitner, secretary in the transportation office, remembers Poper driving when she was a student. Working with him professionally for 12 years, she appreciated his help with busing issues that cropped up every day.

Director of Transportation Thomas Dick agreed. "Carl's the kind of guy you hope you get to work with. He's conscientious. He takes care of the students and he takes care of equipment."

Poper's value to the district went beyond transporting students. Dick credited him with handling a multitude of tasks between runs. Poper changed light bulbs, went for parts, picked up buses from the repair shop, fixed things, delivered inter-school mail, and was fun to be around.

"It's all the little things no one sees," said Dick. "And it's hard to be in a bad mood around Carl. He's a guy you can't replace."

Hoover gave Poper a bag of fireballs as a farewell gift.

"He's one of those people who's always just been here," said Hoover. "We're sad he's leaving, but it's understandable. It speaks a lot about him to do this all those years. Imagine how many lives he's touched. He will be missed."