ND, Mont. school bus company nears half century

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RUGBY, N.D. (AP) - The award plaques and framed photographs on the walls number well over 100, all testimony to the remarkable success of doing business in a hometown and an icon of schools everywhere - the yellow school bus.

Hartley’s School Buses of Rugby was started by Hartley Hageness in late 1969. Countless vehicles pass by the multiple rows of new and used yellow school buses each day on U.S. Highway 2 on the east edge of Rugby. Many drivers and passengers likely wonder how so many buses could possibly be associated with a North Dakota community whose most notable claim to fame is for being the “geographical center of North America.” Hartley’s School Buses might be an obvious second.

Hageness grew up on a small farm near Rugby and has been closely associated with the city ever since. He’s recovering from knee replacement surgery today, but still can be found in his office in the massive building in which buses are custom fitted to the purchaser’s liking, body shop work completed and trained mechanics work from front to back on all aspects of buses, long and short.

Rugby’s a great town. This is my hometown. We’ve tried to be quite involved in things in the city over the years,” Hageness told the Minot Daily News (http://bit.ly/QCArEC).

He’s a pilot, too, and, over the years has used his planes to take at least 1,500 Rugby high school students on special flights over the region on prom nights. Judging by the broad smile when talking about those adventures, Hageness thoroughly enjoyed providing aerial thrills to happy students.

“In all those flights I only had two get sick,” said Hageness with a sly grin. “Sometimes I tried too. I gave them a flight to make sure they would remember.”

Hageness‘ most youthful days are behind him now. The likable businessman has several mementos in his office that would be the envy of many pilots, including a clock with both a yellow school bus and an airplane painted on the face. Hageness didn’t say when he had last flown an airplane, only that he was considering retiring as a pilot.

The Rugby native got his start in the school bus business with a simple bid to the Rugby School Board to take over some bus routes at the school. He was awarded four of them. The rest is history.

“Then we pursued the dealership for a small line of buses and later became a Bluebird dealer,” recalled Hageness. “It’s been a great connection, always here in Rugby.”

Bluebird is the name that has been emblazoned on thousands of buses that have passed through Hartley’s School Buses for more than 40 years. Hageness acquired the Bluebird dealership for North Dakota and Montana in 1973 and still runs a number of school bus routes in both states today.

“We have seven school bus routes in Montana and another seven or eight in North Dakota,” said Hageness. “We furnish the buses and the drivers. We also have charter buses that operate on the road. We’re quite busy with that.”

Hageness laughs when he tells the story of arriving with a busload of passengers at Minot’s Norsk Hostfest. In large script on the side of a completely black bus with tinted windows was the inscription “Black Diamond.” The bus was immediately directed to a spot reserved for entertainers to unload their equipment.

“Then we had to tell them we weren’t the band,” chuckled Hageness.

Hageness explained that he had purchased the bus from a private owner in Las Vegas who has chosen to place his nickname for the bus, Black Diamond, on the side of it. Hageness liked it so much he kept it, even meticulously replacing the name when the bus was re-painted. The bus remains one of Hartley’s most requested charters today.

Through the years though, it has been the trademark yellow school bus that has been synonymous with Hartley‘s. The motors and electronics and interiors have undergone immense changes through the years, but the yellow paint remains unchanged. It is a required color for school buses other than those used to transport students involved in sports or other activities.

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