Vineland Public Schools in New Jersey showed its gratitude to long-time school bus driver Dean Charlson, who is retiring after 55 years on the job.
Charlson began working for the district as a substitute school bus driver in 1961 and went to full time two years after that. During his career, he has transported over 8,000 students and has driven more than 500,000 miles. He is the district’s longest-serving employee, beating the previous record of 53 years.
“Imagine driving the perimeter of the continental United States—12,000 miles in a year—in a big yellow school bus filled with children. Imagine doing that not once, but EVERY year, for more than half a century,” the district said in praise of Charlson in 2014.
Joe Callavini, who has been transportation and registration coordinator for Vineland Public Schools for the past 33 years, was friends with Charlson’s son in high school, and rode Charlson’s school bus on dozens of field trips. “I really went back with Dean,” he shared. “You could set your watch by him. He was always there at the same time, every day.”
Charlson was recognized and honored with a framed photograph at an Aug. 8 school board meeting, where he recalled the most significant changes he had observed over his long career. Traffic is the biggest, he said, since there weren’t that many vehicles on the road when he first started busing students.
He also outlined changes made to the school bus for comfort and safety. For example, he said he remembers when school bus seats were all metal, except for a seat cushion. He added that safety equipment like stop arms, crossing gates and back-up alarms became necessary, because traffic increased, and today’s drivers do not pay enough attention on the road.
What he said he really loved about the job was driving the kindergarteners, who would show up on the first day of school “dressed all prim and proper [with] big smiles on their faces,” Callavini related.
He explained that Charlson was one of the founding members of the Vineland School Bus Association, which was formed to support employee interests before a workers union was available. He also helped create the district’s first school bus driver manual.
Ever the giving person, Charlson amassed over 500 sick days, but gave them away to coworkers who needed them. He also planned retirement dinners for fellow drivers and spearheaded the “Sunshine Club,” which provided help and support to families in cases of a driver’s sickness or death.
When he passed his half-a-century mark of working at the district, students and peers alike turned out to express their appreciation for everything Charlson did.
Callavini shared that Charlson was the last of the “Oncers,” or dependable drivers. “We would only see or hear from them one time a year, when they would come in to pick out their route package in August,” explained Callavini. “The rest of the year you never heard from them, nor did you have to contact them for any reason. They showed up every day, on-time, and problem free.”
Charlson recalled humorous instances he had encountered through the years, such as the special visitor he would get whenever he picked up a certain girl who lived at a farmhouse. “Well, every time I went to pick the girl up, a duck would come and peck on my door. And when I dropped the girl off at night, the duck was there waiting for me. That lasted four or five months. It was comic because he would always peck on the glass,” he shared.
He also lent a listening ear to the older students in particular. “Once I got to know them we started talking. They might not have been comfortable talking to their parents, and found it easier to (communicate) with me,” Charlson said.
Charlson also transported students with the New Jersey Youth Corps. Several members said that he was “very charismatic,” “a very nice guy,” and “a fantastic driver.” He was always punctual, they said, and they felt safe with him.
“I think in any profession, over 50 years is unheard-of, today. And he really was someone that should be looked up to,” Callavini shared. “He was just an example that all young drivers should pay attention to.”