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UP CLOSE: Bus driver bridges generations

September 8, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer (aolivero@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - As George Smith walks up the staircase in the Lake Placid Central School District's bus garage on Cascade Road, the 60-year-old driver passes by relics of the school's past. Crammed in a corner is a vintage Pepsi vending machine that once sold cans of cola for just 70 cents.

The price point hearkens back more than a quarter-century, when the 1980s turned to the '90s. By then, Smith was already a dozen years into his run as a Lake Placid bus driver.

Twenty-seven years later and chipper as ever, Smith is now the longest tenured driver for the school system. A familiar face to many Placidians, he's someone other drivers look up to and kids respect.

Article Photos

News Photo — Antonio Olivero
George Smith, 60, estimates he’s driven more than 2,000 Lake Placid and Wilmngton students to and from school and events since he began driving for the district in 1979.

Paula Lewis was seated a few chairs away from Smith in the bus garage's elevated break room on Tuesday, Sept. 5 as she placed her annual calls to local families to inform kids of their pick-up and drop-off times for the year.

Looking up toward Smith while she balanced the garage's land-line phone between her ear and shoulder, Lewis shot straight about what Smith means to the community.

"George is the best bus driver we have," said Lewis, who has been a bus driver in Lake Placid for 18 years. "He runs a good, tight bus."

Since his start in 1979, Smith estimates he's transported more than 2,000 Placidians. They are and were backpack-humping youngsters who now span three generations in this village and beyond.

He's done it all with only two minor accidents on these mountain roads.

"I did sports runs," Smith said. "I drove activities, overnights - I did 'em all.

"And I'm still doing 'em all."

Smith still might be, say, transporting the boy's hockey team back into town after a big title victory while honking his horn to passersby on Main Street. But he acknowledges that, with time, he's an aging relic himself.

With each September, he becomes that much older than the students, who always have those same wide-eyed jitters when boarding his bus for the first time. Whether it's 1987, 1997 or 2017, there's that same innocent nervousness about the new school year from these kids as they eye the steep steps up bus No. 2's side stairs after Smith opens the doors.

In recent years, some of those students who formerly rode Smith's bus have shown up outside No. 2 as parents.

To Smith and Lewis, it's an example of life imitating art. It's straight out of the movie "Forrest Gump." While the driving duo sat in the garage's break room two days before the start of the school year, Lewis egged Smith on briefly until he conceded that, yes, he is Lake Placid's version of Dorothy Harris - the fictional, cigarette-smoking bus driver who in 1954 picked up the young Gump character from his home in the fictional town of Greenbow, Alabama.

"That's George, alright!" Lewis said.

Twenty-eight years later, in 1982, the movie ends with Harris picking up Gump's son from the same bus stop, only this time she's traded her smoking habit for wads of bubble gum.

Twenty-eight years ago, in 1982, Smith may not have been smoking cigarettes or chewing Bazooka Joe in the front seat. But times have changed for him as well. Back then, there were no electronics like iPads and their accompanying earbuds to occupy the time and attention of students seated behind him.

Also back then, Smith was picking up a child who would eventually become his current boss: Jeff Jacques, the district's director of transportation. It's just one example of many as, 28 years later, Smith just finished picking up and dropping off Jacques's children before the final child graduated from the high school two years ago.

In 1982, the buses were different. Smith's favorite was his first: No. 31.

"That was the best bus I ever drove," Smith recalled. "It was a standard. It just was a nice bus. I wish I had one like that now."

No. 31 got him through some of his toughest excursions through the worst North Country weather. Smith vividly remembers what he regards as his worst trip: driving three hours to a boys hockey game in Massena in 1981 through blinding January snow.

"You could hardly see," he said. "But we weren't very scared. I had a large team, and I was young, only 24 at the time."

These days, Smith's bus does runs in Lake Placid, Wilmington and to and from the Adirondack Educational Center in Saranac Lake. Oh, and all of those sports trips.

The camaraderie of the sports trips is one thing he'll miss when he retires at the end of next school year - also the general verve of the students.

Though he, his buses and the technology surrounding education have changed drastically since 1979, Smith's relationships with the children haven't really. In the morning, they are still those groggy-eyed kids he tries to help wake up with a warm "hello" before they find their seats along the cold window glass and fall back into a light, bumpy slumber.

And in the afternoon, they are still those rambunctious children ready to take on the adventures that come with each afternoon and evening.

But wherever life after captaincy of his yellow bus takes him, Smith will have with him the inter-generational memories and friendships forged in the driver's seat.

"You, know," Smith said, "I'm going to miss the kids. That's what I'm going to miss the most."

 
 

 

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