Dresser’s last stop

After 13 years — and 80,000 miles — of delivering children safely to school, Tom Dresser closes a chapter of his life.

Tom Dresser will take his last batch of kids to school on Monday. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Up close, school buses are much larger than they appear to be when seen from the sidewalk. They are cavernous inside, even when they are full of humanity’s liveliest and funniest citizens.

Tom Dresser knows this. He’s been driving Martha’s Vineyard kindergartners through high schoolers to school and back again, 180 days a year, for the past 13 years.

Playing with the math we get: more than 2,300 days; about 1,500 different kids; 9,000 trips up Indiantown Road in West Tisbury; and 70,000 or 80,000 accident-free miles. Nice job.

Friday morning last week, Mr. Dresser ruminated on his career after trundling several dozen students to the West Tisbury School.

“I’ve learned a lot on this job,” he said. “Patience, certainly. And the importance of being on time as a form of respect to other people in your life. If I’m late or I mess up, that would have a direct impact on the kids and their families, even if it’s just getting a bad start to their day. The kids know it’s important to be on time too. We depend on each other for that.

“Luckily I’ve been on this [West Tisbury] route the whole time, so you get the same kids for many years, and become a small part of their lives. Probably I’m driving the kids of high schoolers I drove 13 years ago,” he said, with a wry smile and a head shake at the passing of time.

Mr. Dresser has created a culture of respect on his bus. He speaks to the kids as individuals, he knows every child’s name, and he remembers the little things about their lives.

That Friday he asked one kid how his injured foot was doing, another where his sister was that day. Mr. Dresser has three rules in his bus: Stay in your seat. Keep your voice down. Don’t bother the people around you. The rules and the culture work.

“We don’t have monitors on the bus. Kids who are seat-belted in the family car aren’t in seat belts on the bus, so they have a sense they can move more freely. It’s important to reinforce staying seated,” he said, sounding like Mr. Chips with a commercial driver’s license.

Mr. Dresser, 68, lives in Oak Bluffs, and writes books when he is not driving Bus 119. He has has written eight books in all on Island history. At the end of this week, he will turn over the keys of Bus 119 and become part of that history. He said he does so with mixed feelings.

“I really loved this job, but I’m feeling that it’s time to do something else, though I don’t know what that might be right now,” he said. “I have grandkids in California and in New Orleans. I know I want to spend more time with them.”

With age comes experience with life. Mr. Dresser has been an elementary schoolteacher, and was a nursing home administrator, both here and off-Island, before he found career nirvana driving a school bus.

“And I’m 68 now. I want to retire while I still have the acuity to do this job right; have the sight, hearing, the reflexes,” he said.

Driving a school bus is not a job for the vacant-minded. For one thing, the school buses serve as part of the Island communications network. Alert bus drivers call in reports of stray livestock (deer and lost horses last week) and road impediments (a rogue construction barrel on Friday). Mr. Dresser’s eyes constantly glance at his side mirrors and watch the passengers behind him. He automatically murmurs into his microphone: “Put that away, please,” and “Please don’t do that,” as needed.

He really likes the atmosphere of respect on Bus 119. “Honestly, I can say I’ve never had a serious incident with a kid in 13 years,” he said. “And I’ll tell you something about the high school kids on this Island. They are the most polite kids I’ve ever met. They just thank you every day. No prompting. They just do it.”

The acid test, of course, is what the kids think of “the Good Bussy.” Kids are breathtakingly honest. The Times talked to several kids for their take on the bus driver.

Jack Tully, a third grader, a veteran bus rider, said, “Tom’s the best. We’ve had substitutes from time to time, but he’s the best.”

Another third grader, Terrance Ray, who rides the bus with his brother and sister and listened carefully to the conversation, nodded in agreement with his classmate’s assessment.

As Terrance prepared to leave the bus at the West Tisbury School, he extended his hand, made eye contact with this reporter, and said, “Jack, thank you for riding our bus today. Have a nice day.”

What a ride.