Bus driver pulls career to the curb

Betty Harris walks in front of a bus bearing well wishes on her retirement.

Betty Harris walks in front of a bus bearing well wishes on her retirement. Photo by Donna Lasater.

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Betty Harris shows off her trademark "crazy socks" on April 17, her last day on the job.

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Riders queue to board Betty Harris' bus on April 17, at the Valley Transit Transfer Station. Betty said people of all ages — especially high school students — wished her well upon her retirement.

Betty Harris hasn’t lost her drive, but she might be a little tired. After 27 years of driving a bus for Valley Transit, she waved goodbye on April 17.

Now that she has retired, riders will miss her smile, friendliness and no-nonsense attitude.

“It’s like family down there; it’s so hard to leave,” Harris said.

She began her career at Valley Transit around 1986. Prior to that she had driven a school bus for Walla Walla Catholic Schools.

“So, altogether I’ve driven a bus for about 33 years — driven buses and students,” she said.

Her initial driver training with the Catholic schools lasted several weeks.

“I was trained by a retired Marine and state patrolman. He put two eggs on the seat and said, ‘Pretend they are students. When you can stop without rolling the eggs you’re ready.’ He was a big, tough guy who really intimidated me when I went in.”

Harris said in her early days of bus driving women were definitely outnumbered by men, but since it’s “one big family” she never had a problem.

With Valley Transit, she trained for about six weeks, she said. “Now you have to have a commercial license and it’s a six-week, very hard course.”

Harris drove Route 3, down Second Avenue to Walla Walla High School and back. “I’ve driven the Wa-Hi route the last nine years,” she said.

The route was ideal for Harris because of her love for students. “I just like children. By driving different buses I chose the high-school age; they are easy to converse with,” she said.

Harris respects today’s youth, calling them good-hearted, smart and kind.

She related a “special story” to illustrate why she appreciates young people: “It was a Friday and it was windy, blustery. A young single mother didn’t have enough money. She had actually borrowed the money for her pass and had lost it on the way to the bus stop.

“She was explaining it to me and the students all started looking through their back packs. They came up with a pile of change, only about $1.50 short of what she needed.”

“I love the kids,” she said. “My husband was also a kid lover. He coached baseball for 11 years.”

Originally from the lower Yakima Valley, she and her late husband, Bob, moved here as newlyweds in 1966. “We were married 47 years,” she said. She has three children, five grandkids and one great grandson.

Harris, who just turned 70, said she has met a number of wonderful people in her years driving the bus. “It’s a great opportunity to get to know people,” she said.

On her last day driving the bus, “I got hugs, cards, cakes and gifts. I love crazy socks and I had 43 hanging up in my bus. I received 17 more pairs of socks,” she said. Although bus drivers have uniforms, accessories are fine.

Harris, a fun-lover, was flamboyant with colorful hats and wild, happy socks. Colored socks, festive socks, holiday socks, Valentine’s Day socks, Fourth of July socks — “I loved holidays,” she said.

Laughter and optimism were well-received on Route 3. “I had so many people that were ill. They were on their way to the general hospital, doctors’ offices and dentists,” she said. A kind greeting and seeing a cheerful bus driver with bright, happy socks could ease the burden of someone recovering their health.

The most challenging thing about her job was “probably the traffic and your schedule. You’ve got people waiting for you.”

“My biggest rush in the wintertime, you can’t pull the bus over, you have to stay on the road and block. I once waited for 27 cars to let me back out into traffic. Drivers don’t realize you’re on a half-hour schedule,” she said.

Harris is by nature energetic and cheerful, to the benefit of everyone she encounters. “If it’s your nature to be cheerful it affects the people. Like a dreary dark day, you just turn all the lights on in the bus and greet people cheerfully. Ninety percent of the people gave me a greeting or said ‘thank you’ when they got off the bus,” she said.

“It was fun just meeting new people and people from out of town. You’d feel so good to point them to another route — more scenic, maybe, going through the old houses or going past the penitentiary. Things we take for granted.”

On her first day of retirement she was so busy tying up loose ends she said she didn’t even think about the fact that she was retired. Her plans included calling on a friend with an ill spouse. “I want to help her. She was there when my husband was very ill.”

Now that spring is warming, she plans to do some gardening. “I just want to enjoy — just slow down,” she said.

Karlene Ponti can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com.

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