Beverly Summerhill of Ridgefield came home to her family one day and announced to her husband and three teenaged children that she thought she’d like to take a job driving a school bus. Her husband said, “If you think you can drive a bus, go for it.”
That was 46 years and 455,000 miles ago.
“It’s a good job for a gal who has kids at home,” Summerhill said.
Summerhill would use her daytime hours between routes to keep her family and household running smoothly. Now that her own children are grown, she uses her free time to also clean the bus administration offices (a job she’s not sure she is ready to retire from).
Not many people drive a school bus for so many years. Donna Carnes has been driving a bus alongside Summerhill since 1993, and she remembers that Summerhill was the most senior staff member even then. Carnes describes how Summerhill always seemed to have the energy and drive to do extra. When bleary-eyed drivers arrived at the bus barn for their 6 a.m. morning shift, Summerhill would have already arrived early to wash the busses, or picked a flat of strawberries on her way in to work.
“I love kids, and I love driving bus, and I love people,” she said, adding with a laugh, “and I like to travel.”
Summerhill described the scenery of her bus route winding through the Ridgefield countryside, the parade of seasons keeping it ever changing. Crops would blossom, ripen and die back down, hay grew tall and was cut and laid in bales across the fields.
“You get to see it,” she said, of the changing views.
Kids will act like kids, and like any bus driver, some days Summerhill was a disciplinarian.
“Sometimes you have problems, and you have to nip it right in the bud,” she said. But she emphasized that she would never embarrass kids, but waited until she could talk with them privately.
When she would ask, “What do you think we’re going to talk about?” they would know, she said. She would fill out a “discipline slip,” and tell them she was going to keep it, and if they had the same problem again she would turn it in. “I haven’t turned in very many,” she said.
“I guess I have a heart for kids,” Summerhill said, and teared up a little as she added “I love the kids.”
She always brought treats for her riders on holidays. As she reeled off the list of occasions, it seemed that there wasn’t an excuse for a holiday that was missed.
Summerhill always makes a point to greet and say goodbye to each child, every day. She feels that you never know what has happened in that child’s day, and they need the chance to connect and be greeted with a little kindness. One young girl rode her bus all through elementary school, and as a sixth grader said “I really like you, you’re just like my grandma.”
Summerhill had the same smile and greeting for every parent too, since they would usually be waiting near the bus stop. After so many years and so many families, she can’t walk through a local store without seeing someone who rode her bus.
A bus driver does have to be prepared for a few mishaps. One day Summerhill was driving a “pusher,” a bus with an engine in the rear, to a field trip in Kelso, when a passing motorist signaled to her that her bus was on fire. The motorist was carrying a fire extinguisher and was able to safely put out the fire, though the trip was delayed long enough to arrange for a replacement bus.
According to Donna Sheppard, assistant director for KWRL Transportation Cooperative, the school bus industry has changed a lot during Summerhill’s years behind the wheel. When Summerhill began, Ridgefield had their own bus service, and there were few job requirements. Now, drivers must have a commercial driver’s license, pass a Department of Transportation physical, obtain school bus authorization, and complete mandated yearly state courses.
Lloyd Gonzales, who works with Summerhill as a school bus driver, grew up in Ridgefield, where Summerhill began her career. He remembers the two broken down busses parked behind the shop, which were used for parts to repair the rest of the fleet. Now KWRL, which provides school bus services to Kalama, Woodland, Ridgefield, and La Center, houses 100 gleaming busses at a $1.4 million bus barn facility completed in 2014.
Summerhill has a few plans for her newfound time, including some cruises with her husband, trips to visit family, and an excursion to an Arkansas neighborhood garage sale, which extends for 65 miles. She seemed to find it hard to believe she wouldn’t be coming to the bus barn each morning, or washing busses in the early dawn.
“It’s great. To me it’s not a job,” said Summerhill. “I guess when you enjoy something the time flies.”
“After 46 years – it’s time for the final stop on her route,” reads the invitation to Summerhill’s upcoming retirement party.
“She is the person that puts the parties together for the drivers. This time she has to sit back and watch someone put a party together for her,” said Sheppard.
The community is invited to Summerhill’s retirement celebration, which will be held on Sat., June 20 at 5 p.m., at the Woodland High School Commons at 757 Park Street in Woodland. Organizers request that “in lieu of gifts please bring a dish to share,” and RSVPs are requested by Wed., June 17, to (360) 907-1949.