The bus pulls up to the stop, and she’s there with a smile and a “good morning.”
There might be some 1980s music playing, and the driver has some rules. She expects kids to stay in their seats, keep their voices at a reasonable volume and not leave any trash behind. But she’s aware students’ school day starts with her, and she’s always looking to make someone smile.
Welcome to Bus 131 — Wendy Kacsmark’s school bus.
Kacsmark, who graduated from Livonia’s now-closed Bentley High School in 1977, is in her 41st year as a bus driver for Livonia Public Schools and is the transportation department’s most senior employee.
“I love my job,” she said. “I love driving and I love children. That’s what’s kept me.”
Kacsmark wanted to become a driver at 18 when she graduated from Bentley, but the district didn’t hire drivers that young at the time. She had considered becoming a teacher like her mother, but jobs weren’t available due to declining enrollment.
She finally got the driving job at 21 years old and has stayed with the district ever since. In the early 1980s, the district only had nine automatic transmission buses, so Kacsmark learned to drive a stick shift school bus.
Kacsmark’s base group today is students who have severe physical and cognitive disabilities. She’s been working with that program for 30 years and has a bus equipped to board wheelchairs.
“I’ve been learning the entire time I’ve been here,” she said. “The kids will teach us something every day.”
Kacsmark says her job isn’t something just anyone can do. Sometimes, drivers need to get creative to keep the peace. Kacsmark recalled one day of subbing for a friend who drove Holmes Middle School students that required a little imagination.
Apparently, this bus had an especially loud, rowdy group.
“A couple of girls get on and ask where their driver is. I say, ‘They sent me because you guys are bad. I’m the enforcer,'” she remembers. “That is what I said.
“And I’ll tell you — that was the best ride I ever had.”
Things have, of course, changed over the years. Kacsmark says people get offended more easily by what’s playing on the radio or student disciplinary action than they did 20 years ago. She recalls one memory that she says could never happen today:
“One year, one of the radio stations was giving away a Harley at Christmas,” she said. “I go, ‘Boy, I would sure like to win one,’ and one of the kids goes, ‘Well pull over and call right now.’ This is when there were pay phones. So I pull over and was like caller nine. I get back in and I tell the kids I didn’t make it. The kids were all disappointed because I didn’t win the Harley.”
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She said the bus was on time to school that day, thank you very much.
But as times have changed, Kacsmark says her goal of making those around her smile has never waned.
“Things get you down here sometimes,” she said. “People aren’t happy all the time when they go to work. That’s been my goal here all along – to keep people happy. I try to keep the peace because we work way better when everyone is happy.”
Kacsmark plans to keep it up as long as she can. Livonia heads back to school Tuesday, and she’s ready to do it all over again.
“I like my job and as long as I’m healthy, there could be another 10 years,” she said.
Contact reporter Shelby Tankersley at email@example.com or 248-305-0448. Follow her on Twitter @shelby_tankk.