WALLINGFORD — Al Bowes is the kind of school bus driver who greets his passengers with a smile, treats them not as little kids but as young adults, and likes to commemorate special occasions by dressing, for example, as Santa on the last school day before Christmas.
Bowes helps his clientele remember their scheduling, reminding them of looming early dismissals, no-school days, holidays and club events, and always has his bus where it needs to be quite punctually.
That’s why, when the Wallingford man ran his last yellow bus route on Thursday, about three dozen parents and present and former passengers greeted him along his route at Broadview Drive with signs and applause.
“Bus 8: The legendary bus driver has retired,” read one sign. “Not only our bus driver. More like family,” another said.
Bowes, who has a ZZ Top-style beard — “ZZ Top” is among his nicknames — but not quite Santa’s waistline, was touched by the display. Wallingford resident Tara Amodio said she and fellow parent Scott Hastings couldn’t let Bowes’ last day in a yellow bus pass unnoticed.
Kindergarten to high school students of Wallingford have been bused by Bowes for 19 years. Some parents whose kids ride his bus rode with him when they were kids, and it would probably be sad if not traumatic to the younger pupils confined to home learning by the pandemic to lose him without having had a chance to say goodbye, Amodio said.
“We knew he deserved a tribute. And with only two days notice, this was the only thing that was feasible,” said Amodio, who, with Hastings, reached out to homebound students and their families through social media to let them know of Bowes’ departure.
His co-workers at Durham School Services were delighted but not very surprised that Bowes received such a warm sendoff, said Destiny Cordero, a dispatcher at the statewide bus company.
“All of us girls in the office watching the video that they had put out on the news had tears in our eyes,” Cordero said. “He’s a really good driver and worker and he has respect for all of the children that he picks up.”
Driving a school bus is stressful. Simple accidents easily dismissed by any other motorists could be career-enders for bus drivers. The passengers can be unruly. If buses don’t run on schedule, they can derail a school day, and last-minute changes are common.
“Sometimes they hand you a sheet and you just have to go,” Cordero said. “You could be in the middle of a run going somewhere trying to keep it on time and end up having to go someplace you don’t know.”
Bowes’ bus driving record is spotless, Cordero said.‘Sense of peace’
His schools also appreciated Bowes. Cook Hill Elementary School Principal Kristine Friend and Parker Farms Elementary Principal Christina Sagnella were among those who greeted Bowes at Broadview Drive. Students at both schools cheered him with banners and drawings of big hearts during stops there on Thursday, Amodio said.
Parents will miss having Bowes behind the wheel. For one thing, when it comes to keeping kids up-to-date with the school schedules, “he’s better than some of us parents,” Amodio said.
Bowes, who is also nicknamed “Big Al” or “Mr. Al,” is retiring from driving yellow buses, but will keep driving vans for the company, Cordero said.
Still, it won’t be the same, Amodio said.
“It’s very important to have someone like Al, to know that he is driving your kids safely and treating them as if they were his own,” Amodio said. “It gives you that sense of peace knowing that they are in good hands.”