ROCKY VIEW COUNTY, Alta — After 55 years of waking up at the crack of dawn and getting three generations of school kids to and from school safely, Rocky View County bus driver Murray Poffenroth is handing in the keys at the end of this school year, announcing his retirement as a bus driver.
Poffenroth drives one of the few remaining independent contracted routes for Rocky View Schools (RVS) – a route he started driving at the age of 18 in the fall of 1967. When he was less than a year older than several of the students on his bus, he was hired by the Calgary School Division to pick up kids around Irricana and drive them to Kathyrn School.
He recalled a time when people relied on the school bus to open the roads in the winter, as they didn’t have the number of commuters there are today. Farmers living in the country along his route would often watch out for the bus and lend a helping hand when needed.
“I remember one morning getting stuck in a snow bank north of Irricana and my neighbour, a farmer, was watching for me,” Poffenroth said. “I was trying to get out and pretty soon he came along with his tractor because he'd been watching for me. That's the way it was in those days.”
Since his first full winter in 1968, he gained a lot of experience in starting up the school bus engine in freezing temperatures and avoiding snow drifts.
“We never missed a day in [the winter] of 1968. It was -40 degrees Fahrenheit every morning when I started the bus. If anyone wants to go back in the archives, they can see how cold January of 1968 was,” he said, chuckling.
By the spring of 1969, the bus drivers were asked by the school board if they were willing to buy the buses and be contracted by the division. Poffenroth started as an independent contractor in May 1969 and remains one of the last privately contracted bus drivers in the area today.
Even while getting up every morning at 4:50 a.m. to pick up students in the Irricana area, he also successfully operated a family grain farm and a pure bred cattle business, with the help of his wife and family.
“My wife was always my partner. She never drove a bus, but thanks [go] to her support over the years for doing multiple things on the farm while I was away driving the bus,” he said.
To this day, his family still owns cattle and does their own haying, but rents out their crop land.
About mid-afternoon every day, Poffenroth leaves the farm in his wife’s capable hands to go pick up the students from school.
Starting in September 1981, he bought a second bus and had an employee drive it for him for the next 28 years.
Sometime in the 1980s the Kathyrn School and Beiseker school joined to form a multi-campus, shuttling junior-high kids to Kathyrn and high-school kids to Beiseker. In his final years as a bus driver, Poffenroth exclusively drove Irricana kids to Beiseker.
Once his bus driver employee moved on, Poffenroth said he sold his second bus in 2008 to a woman who used to be a student on his bus for 12 years.
He has worked for a lot of good people over the years, he said, and always enjoyed doing the work and the routine along with it.
Carol Hagel, the secretary at Kathyrn School, has worked with Poffenroth since 1975, when she joined Kathyrn School’s staff. She also had a personal connection with him as a community member and one of the parents of the kids along his route.
Her kids are now 32 years old, and she still remembers Poffenroth as a consistent, community-oriented, friendly, and reliable driver.
“He was a pretty quiet guy but he was always really caring about the kids,” she said. “He lived in the community and people could reach out. We knew him and if my kids weren't on the bus, we could phone him. He had a personal connection with the students and parents.”
She added that Poffenroth was always there and never missed a day.
Instead of private bus drivers from the community driving the bus, more companies are taking over the task of picking up and dropping off students at their homes, she said.
Yet another connection between the two is that Hagel’s mother, a school trustee back in 1967, was who originally encouraged Poffenroth to try out bus driving and hired him, she noted.
With retirement just around the corner, Poffenroth added that he will have to adjust to not waking up early every school day. He added it will be tough to hand over the school bus route and say goodbye to the “very good crew of kids” that he sees every morning and afternoon.
“I'll probably miss seeing things in the community as you're driving by – the small calves running in the field,” he said. “I see that at home as well, but there are bright sunny mornings that kind of invigorate you. I'll miss that.”