- Associated Press - Saturday, June 7, 2014

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - After nearly 20 years behind the wheel, shuttling Routt County students to and from school, Steamboat Springs School District bus driver Clair Erickson is turning in his keys.

But Erickson won’t say he’s leaving a school bus and retiring as a district employee.

That’s because a school bus has meant so much more to Erickson than a mode of mass transportation to make sure kids are at school on time and home at a decent hour afterward.

“To me, it’s a big, yellow classroom,” Erickson said from the district’s bus barn, just hours after shuttling spectators to and from Hahn’s Peak for the Steamboat Marathon.

He insists students - from kindergartners to high school seniors - call him Mr. E. The idea is to build respect and create a foundation of formality early in kids’ lives.

And as a nearly two-decade school bus driver, Erickson has seen just about everything. The older students tend to be more mellow, he said, putting in earphones and zoning out on their way to school. Getting the youngsters to sit still even for a second is a bit more challenging.

But even though a day of transportation sometimes comes with a headache after a delivery full of wired students, Erickson has stayed in the business simply for the joy of being around kids.

The pay hasn’t been bad, he said, but the biggest reward of all is watching students grow from their first bus stop in kindergarten to their last day of high school.

“I look at it as, man, they’re paying me a lot of money to just go have fun working with the kids,” Erickson said. “That’s what I enjoy, being with the kids.”

He first got behind the school bus wheel when he was a student himself in Idaho. Approached by the district superintendent at age 18, Erickson joined a small group of farm-working kids skilled enough to help the school by driving the bus.

Erickson went on to study finance in college, also in Idaho. When he graduated with a degree in hand, he and a friend decided to make a cross-country road trip, just “to see what was out there,” he said.

When passing through Colorado, a relative in Denver talked him into sticking around for a while. He did, and for three years, he served as an accountant for a mutual fund, then worked as a mortgage banker for another six years.

That’s when an opportunity came up in real estate lending in Steamboat Springs in 1974. He worked various jobs in the area, working for Routt County National Bank (where Wells Fargo is now), selling insurance and even owning a screen-printing shop for a decade.

While running the shop, he took on an added role as a part-time school bus driver for Steamboat Springs School District, serving as a substitute and activity transporter for half a decade.

“The director then came to me and says, ‘You’re going to drive a regular route,’” Erickson recalled. “And I says, ‘No way, I don’t want a route.’”

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