Those who know him best say he is the hardest working man in Wilson County, but for all his diverse vocations, David Wright always has made getting children to school safely and on time job number one.
He retired four weeks ago from the Wilson County Sheriff's Department where he served for 37 years as a reserve deputy (he worked security at Sonic on Friday and Saturday nights for 17 years). But that only scratches the surface. Across six decades, Wright, 73, worked at Ross Gear, Bradley Candy Company, Lebanon Woolen Mills, Middle Tennessee Electric and Sadler Funeral Home. He also provided lawn-care service and delivered newspapers for 30 years.
"I've had several jobs in my lifetime and made careers out of most 'em," says Wright, not understating his case.
The one constant in his work life has been a long, four-wheeled yellow chariot: his school bus; where his business has been all about hands on the wheel, eyes on the road.
Today, Wilson County's longest-tenured bus driver completes his 48th year of motoring students to school, a job he began Dec. 6, 1967.
"I've had 26 new buses since I been driving," says the plain-speaking Wright, a man sparse with his words. "Back then when they bought the buses, if you went with them when they went to pick them up, then you got a new bus that year. So I always volunteered to go with them.
"The last bus I got was in '05. I haven't got one since then. I been offered three new ones but turned it down because I got air conditioning. I don't want to give it up," he says of bus No. 05-56. "It's kind of my baby. I keep it at home. Nobody drives it but me."
Wanted: Bus Drivers for Wilson County Schools
Wilson County Schools employs 150 bus drivers to deliver children to 20 schools in the county as well as to the Tennessee School for the Blind. Director of Transportation Tiffany Lowery says the county is in the process of hiring 30-plus drivers for the next school year. Interviews are being conducted now for the CDL Training classes that begin June 8, and spaces are limited. Those interested in applying should go online to www.wcschools.com/human-resources/ and follow the prompts or contact Operations Manager Archer Austin at 615-443-2622 for assistance. Starting salary is $12.75 and goes up to $14.05 per hour. Bus attendants also are needed: starting salary is $9.50 an hour. Lowery emphasizes, "Our main focus is student safety. With that we are searching for dependable people to join our team that the boys and girls can look forward to seeing on a daily basis."
And drive it he has. Since getting his vehicle in 2005, he has put about 104,000 miles on the speedometer, which averages out to about 10,000 miles a year.
The man, whom pupils call Mr. Wright or Mr. Bus Driver, has been in but three accidents while steering a bus and none of those his fault. "I always watch out for the other vehicle," he offers as his primary rule for safe driving.
This year Wright's daily routes had him delivering kids to Lebanon High School in the morning. After he takes them home in the afternoon, he motors to Carroll-Oakland Elementary to take a flock of those pupils to their nests.
Across the decades he driven almost every Lebanon High sports team to competitions. This year he delivered cheerleaders and athletes on the football, volleyball, soccer, baseball and softball teams to games.
"I began driving teams in 1969. They put us on a rotation list. I signed up for trips and then they started requesting me to drive. They liked the way I drived," he said.
One of LHS' most recognized supporters
For all the hundreds, more likely thousands, of Blue Devil sporting events he has witnessed, as a schoolboy Wright never had the opportunity to play sports himself. His hands were full cutting firewood and hauling water to the house for his mother.
The working man was born in the Hillsdale community of Macon County, the son of Albert and Stella Wright, a farmer and homemaker, respectively. He grew up with two sisters and four brothers and attended Beech Hill Elementary School and later Ward High School in Hartsville.
Hired by school superintendent Albert Jewell in 1969, he began his marathon career as a substitute driver, floating from school to school. In those early days, he mostly carried students to Byars-Dowdy Elementary and Walter J. Baird Junior High School.
What prompted him way back when to take up driving bus loads of noisy kids?
"I used to ride the bus and always wanted to drive. My bus driver, when he got all the kids off in the evening time, he lived on the same road we was on, and he let me kinda drive the bus a little bit. I just thought that would be a good thing to do," he answers.
"His name was Junior Adams. He was a nice bus driver and our neighbor too. He said, 'Don't you tell nobody else or I'll get fired,'" smiled Wright of the long-ago secret now revealed.
A day behind the wheel
Over the past 30 days, besides taking children to school, he transported them on field trips or to athletic events in Clarksville, Cookeville, Portland, Murfreesboro and Springfield.
His work day begins, he says when, "I leave my house in the morning at 6:10, and I'm at school at 6:48. That's my first run. Then I come in here [the transportation office] and sit if I don't have a second run. I sit till 7:30 then go home. If I have a double run, I finish about 8 o'clock.
"In the afternoon I'm at school at 1:30. They get out of school at 2:20, and I drop my first load at 3 o'clock, then take a second run at 3:05 and am through with it by 4 o'clock."
As for what he enjoys most about being at the helm of his bright yellow vehicle, he says, "Getting to go to a lot of places, getting to go to these ball games, making a little money, get a free meal. I love sports. That way I get paid to watch ball game. If wasn't driving a bus, I'd have to pay to see them. I love football and basketball, so I get out of the house and make a little money too."
Barbara Stone Hallums, head of the math department at Lebanon High and a former Devilette who was an all-state basketball player in 1975, has witnessed driver Wright at work many nights. He probably drove her to some of the games she played in during the 1970s, and he took her own teams when she coached the Devilettes from 1990 to 2003.
"David is an extremely hard worker and not only a great bus driver but also a very loyal supporter and fan. He loves his Lebanon High School athletes. He is an icon for Lebanon High sports. He always wanted to drive the bus for us and always came inside for games to support us. He just always was there and is still there," said Hallums.
"He always took care of his family. He is a family man, but his second family was Lebanon High School. He's a man of few words but his actions said a lot."
(Note: For several years Lebanon High had two blue school buses, named Big Blue and True Blue, which were used for transporting Lebanon sports teams. For the most part the buses were driven by Raymond Lasater and Wright.)
Wilson County Commissioner Cindy Forbes Brown, who graduated from Lebanon High in 1976, recollects, "Mr. Wright drove all our sport buses during high school. He would pick up kids, go to work at Middle Tennessee Electric and then take kids home. At night he would take us to basketball games, football games, baseball games. It is a wonder he is sane."
Brown reports that Wright also drove her daughters, Brittany Crockett Waring, 30, and Crystal Crockett Shields, 34, when they were playing sports or cheerleading for Lebanon High. There was one incident in the late 1990s where his bus began smoking beneath the hood.
"My daughter Crystal, a cheerleader, was coming back from a game or tournament, and the bus had trouble and smoke became coming up. He had to pull over, and he took total control and got all those kids out the back door. They thought he was the biggest hero," reported Brown.
Wright mildly recalls the incident, saying, "A running light must have had a short under the dash. It smoked inside real bad. I pulled over and radioed in and evacuated the bus, doing an emergency evacuation."
After nearly half a century, the bus driver believes the biggest change along the way has come with discipline issues.
"I'm strict on the rules. I don't cut 'em no slack," he said. "If I could do it my way, I could handle them a lot better, but now we got all these rules you have to go through with.
"When I started driving if the kid gave you problems that evening, the next morning you didn't have to pick 'em up. And if you go home in the afternoon and they give you a problem, you could stop on the side of the road and say 'you, off the bus.' On a rainy day I always had good kids because they didn't want to get off in the rain."
Hoping for 50 years
Wright has been married to his wife Helen for 47 years, who also worked for Wilson County Schools, until retiring early due to health problems. The couple has a son, Calvin, who graduated at Friendship Christian School. During his freshman and sophomore years he attended Lebanon High and played in the band, and, you guessed it: Wright often drove his own son to official school events along with other band members.
When not at work, the motor man says, "I like to fish a lot, around creeks for just whatever bites. I get out there and kind of relax, and I like playing with my grandkids" [Preston Cordell, 7, and Cassidy Michelle, 14, who live in Murfreesboro].
He is praying that good health and county officials will allow him two more years in the driver's seat of bus No. 05-56.
"I'm hoping to get 50 years if they will let me stay that long," says Wright, a kind man who loves the kids and the Lebanon High sports teams.
Honored May 18 by Wilson County commissioners for his stint as the longest-serving driver in the county, Wright was pleased to hear County Mayor Randall Hutto tell him that they plan for him to be back behind his wheel come the fall semester.
"He knows every road in the county, and he's very much in demand for out-of-county field trips," said Hutto, paying his respects to the veteran driver.
Wright's boss, Wilson County Schools Director of transportation Tiffany Lowery, noted, "David Wright is one of the most friendly, dependable bus drivers that works for the district. He takes his job seriously and his top priority is student safety. In the short time that I have known him, anytime we need anything, David is one of the first to volunteer to drive if his schedule allows for it.
"He enjoys spending as much time with the students as possible. David absolutely loves driving for field trips and takes pride in keeping a clean bus. He's actually very partial to it. I look forward to introducing David as the first bus driver of Wilson County to hit the 50-year mark."
How has Wright managed to remain so steadfast and rock solid at a job few would relish?
"I just liked it and keep coming back," he says, as an easy smile trickles across his face.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.