Like the proverbial letter carrier, veteran school bus driver Karen Welton lets “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” keep her from swift completion of her appointed rounds.
Those rounds have involved getting generations of children to and from Port Washington schools.
Driving double routes, Welton transports children to Lincoln Elementary, Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Port Washington High School.
That means runs to and from each school, each day of the school year.
Although that schedule often means leaving home when it is still dark and not getting home until the evening gloom settles in, Welton said, “It really isn’t that long of a day.”
Her employer, Johnson School Bus Co., has 39 drivers working out of its Port Washington terminal. It is safe to say, none has the track record Welton does.
When asked her age, she says, “Let’s just say I am over 70.”
Welton began driving school buses more than three decades ago for Valley Bus Co. Twenty-five years ago, that company was bought by Johnson Bus — and Welton came along with the deal.
Before that, she taught third- and fourth-graders for 15 years at Lakeland School in the Town of Saukville and in Adams County — as well as working for 17 years at KMart.
She said that work history all comes into play in her current vocation.
“I like kids and I like driving,” Welton said when asked what appeals to her about getting behind the wheel of a school bus.
“I’ll tell you this, kids today are different than they used to be. They are much better behaved. I don’t have any problems with them.”
She admits that was not always the case.
“I remember once, when a couple of middle-school kids were acting up, I had to stop the bus,” Welton said. “But that doesn’t happen anymore.”
One of the reasons today’s children are better behaved might be that some of her current young riders are the children, or even grandchildren, of students who rode her bus long ago.
“I know a lot of the farm families. It is pretty neat to see the children of kids I used to drive for get on the bus,” Welton said.
Although she said she gets along great with her young riders, Welton has a natural “no nonsense” air about her that intuitively lets children know they aren’t likely to get away with anything.
Over the years, she has kept the same route — largely in rural areas of the Port Washington-Saukville School District.
Those daily runs have made her an expert on the local roads, and she acknowledges with a laugh that Town of Port Washington officials have asked her for input on road conditions.
“You know, the town does a great job of keeping their roads in good shape. Much better than the city,” Welton said.
That partiality might be explained by the preferential treatment she gets from the town’s snow plowing service.
“They know I have to be on the road by 6:30 a.m. and they always make sure the road is clear by my house,” Welton said.
It was a different story in winters past. Decades ago, she said farmers often had to take snow plowing into their own hands.
“One time, I remember the bus got a little too far over and I got stuck in the ditch,” Welton said.
“That was before we had radios on the bus, and I had to send a couple of the boys to a neighboring farmer to get the bus out. But that only happened once. The kids didn’t mind getting to school late.”
Although there is no way of tracking how many miles Welton has logged while driving buses, she has only been involved in one accident.
That, too, was years ago when overcrowding in Saukville resulted in her shuttling students to school in Waubeka.
“I was driving for Valley, and I remember I was backing up in the fog and someone rear-ended me,” Welton said.
Because of her age, the state requires she have annual physicals and complete a road test every two years.
Those added precautions don’t bother Welton.
“I don’t want to retire,” she said.
As the most senior driver, you might think Welton would have her choice of the newest, most comfortable vehicles.
“I don’t want a new one. The mechanics at Johnson keep threatening to retire the bus I drive, but I still like it,” Welton said.
When she is not driving, Welton spends much of her time tending to the 85 fruit trees she has in an orchard on her property.
Her boss, Joyce Buchholz, manager of the Johnson Bus terminal on Highway KW in the Town of Port Washington, has a hard time offering anything but praise for the longtime driver.
“Karen is very dependable,” Buchholz said. “She is always on time and I can’t remember the last time she called in to take time off.”
When she is not picking up or dropping off school children, Welton keeps the yellow school bus parked outside her home on Green Bay Road in the Town of Port Washington.
It is a practice allowed only by the company’s most veteran drivers.
“She likes to make sure the bus will start in the morning,” Buchholz said.
The company has plenty of very dedicated drivers, some of whom have been with them for 25 years, but Karen is the most veteran of the lot.
“Her example alone would be a good lesson for new drivers,” Buchholz said.
“She just loves her job.”
EVEN AFTER DECADES on the job, there are few places Town of Port Washington resident Karen Welton would rather be than behind the wheel of her Johnson School Bus Co. bus. Photo by Sam Arendt