- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

FOLEY, Minn. (AP) - For more than 50 years, Don Beehler has often been in the same place: behind the wheel of a Foley school bus.

Over that half-century, he’s seen the buses get bigger and more technologically advanced. The kids still have their polite and not-so-polite days, but the winters have become tamer - at least some of the time.

Beehler didn’t expect when he became a substitute driver for a private company those many years ago, that decision would lead to a career with the Foley school district, the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1PHpLvr ) reported.

“I figured being gone for two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon, I could work that in with farming,” he said. “I’ve been driving since.”

Beehler even retired in 1999, but he returned after the school district needed bus driving help again. He decided he wanted to do it full time or not at all, so full time it was.

“That summer that he retired, when he took the bus back, he said that was the hardest,” said his wife, Sharon. “At that time he didn’t know he was coming back.”

Kevin Seifermann, transportation director for Foley schools, called Beehler a very loyal employee.

“He’s always on time. He’s very good with the kids,” he said. “He keeps his time on route - parents rely a lot on that. He’s driven in all the conditions we have to drive in.”

There are 21 daily bus drivers in the Foley school district; with substitutes, that number increases to about 30, Seifermann said. Although there are a few with multiple decades on their resume, Beehler is the senior bus driver in age and experience with 51 years on the job, he said.

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Driving a bus has helped provide Beehler and his family with some financial stability when farming wasn’t going well. But it’s also allowed Beehler to make connections with his co-workers, the Foley parents and multiple generations of young riders.

Beehler said he never used to socialize much. Now he goes into work a little early and stops in the bus garage after a route to chat. Sharon Beehler said she’s glad he’s still driving.

“It gets him out. Otherwise, he’d be stuck on the farm,” she said. The Beehlers have four children, 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Life on the farm kept the Beehlers busy. At one point, they had up to 40 milk cows; now they have sheep, goats and beef cows.

Beehler had to take time off last semester because a cow butted him after he was trying to get her calf out of the mud. He missed driving the bus so much he’d stop by the garage when he could.

“And the kids missed him,” said Sharon Beehler, who is a Foster Grandparent. “There are kids I have in reading that (kept asking), ‘When’s Don coming back? When’s Don coming back?’ “

Beehler stayed very busy when he was juggling both the dairy farm and the bus route. He and Sharon would get up at 4:30 a.m. and milk the cows; he’d then go do the bus route and get back to farm work. Soon it would be time for the afternoon route.

Life is a little slower today without the dairy cows, but he keeps refreshed by having a sandwich in the afternoon every day, then taking a 15-minute power nap.

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School buses themselves have changed dramatically over the years. When Beehler started, there were no power brakes or power steering on them. Now the controls for the door and lights are on the steering wheel. Beehler once drove a 42-passenger bus; now it’s a 77-passenger vehicle. Beehler’s been driving bus No. 16 for years.

The winters have become somewhat milder. When Beehler started driving he kept a shovel on the bus in case he to dig himself out (and he used it). Before two-way radios, if the bus had trouble, a student would have to walk to a phone and call for help.

And those kids have changed, too, lately for the better. There were moments when Beehler would have to be blunter with misbehaving kids. A long time ago, he once made a rowdy student get off the bus and walk home. “Now you couldn’t do that,” he said.

He had two students years ago who were good friends he caught fist-fighting.

“I stopped and said, ‘You guys get off the bus and fight it out, and I’ll ref.’ They wouldn’t get off the bus. I made them come and sit in the front seat,” he said. “They asked me, ‘Don’t you fight with your wife?’ I said not like that.”

Beehler has no second retirement date in mind. When does he think he will stop driving? “When my health don’t allow me to, or when they just feel my driving skills aren’t good and they ask me to quit.”

Is he a good driver? Well, his boss has to ride with him once a year. “I just looked over the list and he had all the check marks in the right place,” Beehler said.

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com

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