By JANET HEIM
6:35 PM EDT, October 13, 2011
After 44 years driving a school bus, Thelma Mellott’s kitchen cabinets are filled with school bus driver mugs, and at Christmas, her tree is loaded with ornaments she’s received as gifts.
She can’t bear to part with any of them.
In turn, she and her husband, James “Shorty” Mellott, would make gifts for the students she drove. One year, they made painted wooden school buses for each child.
“I just enjoyed it. I really did,” Thelma Mellott said.
Mellott might be pint-sized, but you’d never realize it when she was behind the wheel of a school bus. This is the first school year in more than four decades that Mellott hasn’t driven students to school.
Although she misses it, Mellott decided it was time to retire.
“I’m no spring chicken anymore,” said Mellott, 80.
She started driving for Lester Martin, a bus contractor in Washington County, in the fall of 1967. Martin had first approached her husband after church to see if he would be interested.
Shorty Mellott was too busy farming, but Thelma overheard the conversation and said she would be interested. Her experience driving farm equipment made her a natural, even though at the time there were only a few other women bus drivers for the county schools, Thelma recalled.
Both Thelma and Shorty were raised on farms, each within a short distance of the Williamsport farm on Dam No. 4 Road where they’ve lived since 1972. They have two sons, two daughters, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The Mellotts’ children and grandchildren would gather for bus-cleaning “parties” to help Thelma get her bus ready for inspection, something they still talk about, she said.
Thelma and Shorty graduated from Williamsport High School within three years of each other. They went to the same church, Downsville Christian Church, which they still attend, and were married in 1950.
Thelma Mellott began driving for Martin in the fall of 1967. Eight years later, he gave up the route for health reasons. He encouraged her to buy her own bus and take over the route, which she did.
Bus 7C took students to and from Downsville School, Williamsport and Fountain Rock Elementary Schools, Williamsport Middle and Williamsport High Schools.
The route changed over the years. Mellott said she drove an average of about 100 miles a day and knew most of the students she drove, in some cases driving three generations in some families.
Mellott said contract buses have to be replaced every 12 years, and her third bus had to be replaced after the 2010-2011 school year. The Mellotts looked into buying another bus, but decided not to make the more than $90,000 investment.
Instead, Thelma sold her bus with about 190,000 miles on it to a driver in Wicomico County, where they are allowed to drive buses for 15 years.
“I was tempted to call and see how it was doing. I have his name and number. It had shiny wheels. It was kind of my baby,” Mellott said.
In all those miles, Mellott said she never had any accidents, although a parent once scraped the back of the bus while it was parked.
Shorty compares driving a school bus to farming.
“It’s hard work. You don’t make much money, but you go to bed and sleep at night,” he said.
School Bus Driver’s Prayer
Please Lord; watch over me this day.
Please help me to remember to watch all seven mirrors, two dozen windows, eight gauges, eight warning lights, six dozen faces and three lanes of traffic.
And to keep a third eye open for wobbling bicycles and daydreaming pedestrians. Especially teenagers wearing headsets who are in another world.
Please Lord, give me a hand for the gear lever, the steering wheel, the route book, the radio microphone and the turn-signal lever.
And Lord, please grant me the self-control to keep my hands away from Johnny’s neck.
And one more thing, Dear Lord, please don’t let Mary be sick all over the bus. And finally, watch over all of us so that we can do it all again tomorrow!
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