A small plaque in the home of Ollie and Elsie Shantz reads, “Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional,” attesting to the fact that they spend a lot of time with kids: The couple spends their days shuttling students to and from school.
In fact, they’ve been doing it so well that their employer, Student Transportation Canada, last week awarded them a trip to Charleston, NC in recognition of their long-term service, specifically 37 years as bus drivers in the Woolwich area.
The Shantzes’ adventures on the road began in 1973, when the man who had driven the school bus in their neighbourhood for several years decided to quit his position abruptly, leaving the route with no driver. It was at that point that Oliver decided that if they wanted their kids to keep going to school, he had better learn to drive the bus. He did just that, as did Elsie, and after all these years, they are now taking a third generation of kids to school.
A lightened workload on the family’s dairy farm that winter enabled Ollie and Elsie to begin their work as a team, a partnership that goes back half a century. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on the same day they were honoured for their work.
The Shantzes credit an ability to keep a cool head while dealing with a busload of kids as the foundation for their success. They also put a great deal of planning into making things run smoothly. Elsie has come up with a seating plan, implemented a reward system and, most importantly, gets to know each of the students by name. It helps that Elsie can also speak the dialect and understands the culture of the Mennonite kids that board their bus.
For Ollie, the trick has been to gain the confidence and control of a group of kids who were known as an unruly bunch.
“There are some rowdy ones, but there are some nice ones too. We are all made of the same material, so there is always the good with the bad.”
With time, patience and a calm attitude, he managed to establish a mutual respect, which he believes is a key part of his job.
At the awards ceremony, the Shantzes were presented with a video about their time as drivers and a watch, which Elsie said is very fitting.
“Some people would say that being on time is the toughest part of this job. It is extremely important that you arrive at twenty after eight and at ten to three. People are counting on you. You get to be very time-conscious.”
The toughest part for Oliver?
“I find that it is when weather conditions are very bad,” Oliver said. “You have a busload of precious little lives, so safety is always upfront as a concern. As a driver, you have a lot of people, a lot of moms and dads, who are putting their trust in you.”
It has taken a great deal of skill and a little bit of luck, but the Shantzes are grateful to be able to say that their 37 years as drivers have been accident-free, an amazing feat given the sometimes treacherous driving conditions.
“Back when we started, even when it snowed we were driving 15 miles with those kids each way. They didn’t cancel days of school like they do now. You went. You put on a snowmobile suit and hoped for the best.”
Those tough times are outweighed by the benefits for the Shantzes, however.
“It grows on you. I love the routine of it,” said Elsie. “I love people. That’s what keeps me there. And I also like the drive.”
Chris Harwood, senior vice-president for Student Transportation Canada, had a chance to get to know Ollie and Elsie on a more personal level when the group travelled down to Charleston for the company’s celebration.
He explained that about 50 drivers from across North America were selected from among some 7,000 drivers.
“It was so tough to pick just a small group of people to be honoured, because with the work that these drivers do, virtually everyone is a hero.”
He noted that although there have been many changes within the company – including the amalgamation with Elliott Coach Lines – it is people like Ollie and Elsie who keep the process grounded, and who stay steadfast throughout the tumultuous times.
“What Ollie and Elsie have done is truly tremendous. They are real salt of the earth, genuine people. I really got to see it in real life this past week.”
Saved in a keepsake envelope in a desk at Ollie and Elsie’s home is a Valentine’s Day card from one of Elsie’s bus riders, which might best sum up why they were honoured for their work: “Thanks for the ride.”