Beloved school bus driver, Mr. Bill to retire

Beloved school bus driver, Mr. Bill to retire

Wilton “Mr. Bill” Ehrhardt took a job driving a school bus for the Bainbridge Island School District in 1980. It was supposed to be a short gig, but it ended up spanning more than three-and-a-half decades.

With retirement fast approaching, Bainbridge’s beloved shuttler of students took a moment to look back and reminisce about the students and shenanigans that marked his time driving for the district.

Thirty-six years is a long time, long enough for a bus driver to develop certain preferences like:

• Favorite bus make: Gillig; and

• Least favorite road: Olympic Terrace.

It is also long enough for a driver to accumulate more outrageous tales of student antics than could ever possibly fit in a newspaper story.

Before he drove buses, occasionally wearing his signature pink wig, “Mr. Bill” (as he’s affectionately called by the students and parents in the district) was a drummer in a band.

“This was supposed to be a short gig between bands,” Ehrhardt said.

Ehrhardt got his start driving buses when he was forced to drive the tour bus for his bandmates.

“They all got out and sat around for about 20 minutes and I go, ‘What are you doing?’ They go, ‘We’re waiting.’ ‘What are we waiting for?’ ‘You to drive the bus.’”

Ehrhardt said it led to him getting licensed to drive buses.

Later, while waiting for a new band to come along, Ehrhardt put his certification to good use and took a job driving buses on Bainbridge Island to make ends meet.

“When I started here there were a lot of people who had been here a long time; old families and a bunch of artsy fartsy kind of people; poets and painters,” Ehrhardt said, explaining how things on the Rock have changed since he first walked up the stairs to his driver’s seat more than a generation ago.

“There was a lot of summer homes here at the time, most of the beach was covered with summer homes; small. Now it’s covered with big, mansion-type of homes. And big price tags to go with them,” he said.

Ehrhardt also gauged the changes over the years based on the types of clothes his students wore.

“It’s gone from kids who pretty much wore what we wore, Penney’s and Sears pants, to the Nordstrom, Macy’s crowd. I remember some kids telling me that they wouldn’t tell me where they got their clothes because they’d be laughed at if they didn’t get them at Nordstrom’s,” Ehrhardt said.

“It’s weird to drive a school bus in a district where in the school parking lot there are more Porsches and Mercedes than were in my whole town where I grew up. It’s weird, but the kids have always been nice,” Ehrhardt said, sure to emphasize that last point.

“They say ‘good morning,’ they say ‘goodbye,’ they say ‘thank you.’ They’re pretty well-mannered kids. I have no complaints about the kids, that’s probably what’s kept me here so long,” he said.

One could imagine that driving busloads of children back and forth from school, five days a week, would take the patience of a Tibetan monk on quaaludes, but Ehrhardt said the kids he drove were rarely the source of any stress for him.

“Stress management comes in with the administration more than the children,” Ehrhardt half joked.

Off the bus

While the administration sometimes caused him a few headaches, Ehrhardt said that from time to time it was the parents who could also prove to be the difficult ones.

“I’m driving this bus route, and there’s these two boys in the back, and boys will be boys, but they’re young third- or fourth-graders and they’re taking turns spitting on each other. So I stopped it and I called them up and ended up writing them up a conduct notice and I sent them home.”

Shortly after the incident, one of the children’s parents contacted the district, upset that Ehrhardt had used the term “gross” to describe their child’s behavior on the conduct notice.

“She didn’t have a problem that her kids were spitting in each other’s faces, but she had a problem that I used the word ‘gross,’” Ehrhardt said.

“You can see the humor in that.”

Ehrhardt likened the way he manages his students on the bus to a toolbox.

“If you think of student management as having a toolbox, you can’t do everything with a wrench or with a screwdriver, you got to have both of those — and a pair of pliers. You have to have a lot of different tools in there, and the tool that worked on this group last year probably isn’t going to be the tool that works on the group this year,” he said.

“You have to have lots of tools in your toolbox to work with,” he added.

Ehrhardt has learned many tricks for working with his kids, one in particular, he said, has proven to be very effective.

“If you treat them as people — now some people don’t, they treat them as kids, or they treat them as just some way to get their benefits by having this job — and it doesn’t work. The kids know that and they can sense that and you’ll have more trouble on your bus. If you really relate to them, get to know them, talk to them, find out what makes them tick, they’ll respond back to you. That’s what’s made this job so nice all these years, the kids,” Ehrhardt said with a smile.

Ehrhardt reluctantly admitted that early on in his career there was a group of students who seemed to possess an uncanny ability to get under his skin.

“I had one ‘route from hell,’ one year,” Ehrhardt said a bit quieter, his eyes seeming to narrow like a sea captain about to recount the story of his perfect storm.

“You know who your disruptive students are. I wouldn’t say bad kids, they aren’t bad kids, they’re just disruptive students. On this [route] they all took turns doing it; it was like they had a system planned out. It wasn’t the same one every day, it was somebody different in the morning and somebody different in the afternoon and every day. It was never-ending,” he said.

“I was still young in this thing so I didn’t have as many tools in my box,” Ehrhardt recalled. “My eyes in the back of my head weren’t quite focused yet.”

Driving hazards

Speaking of visual acuity, one does not spend more than three decades driving on Bainbridge without having at least one harrowing incident involving an elderly driver. Ehrhardt’s was a 94-year-old woman at the wheel of a 1964 Chrysler Imperial.

“I’m on my kindergarten run, midday. I’m down to my last three or four kindergarteners and I’m driving through downtown Winslow,” Ehrhardt recalled.

“I see this car up ahead of me; its reverse lights come on. I tap my airhorn to let them know I’m coming by, because it’s too short for me to stop and let them out at this point. About the time my bus gets most of the way past, [she] backs up into my bus; just in front of the rear tires,” Ehrhardt said.

“Then [she] stepped on the throttle and go back really fast and hit the pole that’s in front of their car,” Ehrhardt continued.

“By the time I got stopped they put it in reverse again, backed into my rear duals, pulled forward and hit the post again, backed one more time into my rear dual and then pulled up and finally stopped,” Ehrhardt recalled with a wide smile.

“The last time she hit my bus, it broke the shock off the shock mount, the bus shifted and the shock came through the rear floor,” he said.

“It was a 94-year-old lady, she ended up driving her Imperial home and the bus had to be towed back.”

After a hearty chuckle, Ehrhardt quickly pointed out that nobody was injured.

When asked if there have been any kids who left an impression on him over the years, Ehrhardt smiled again and simply said, “Way more than you’d have room for.”

During his time as a driver, Ehrhardt has witnessed the children of the kids he has driven stepping onto his bus. He has even driven youngsters who later went on to teach at Bainbridge High School and Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School.

“I love the kids. The kids are awesome,” Ehrhardt said.

After he drops off his last student, Ehrhardt said he plans to focus more on drumming with his band, SweetT and Justice. He also said he will spend his time working on his classic Volkswagens, though he’s quick to point out that it might be some time before he actually gets behind the wheel again.

“I’ll tell you what I’m not gonna do, I’m not gonna drive for at least a couple weeks,” Ehrhardt said.

You can catch “Mr. Bill” playing with SweetT and Justice at 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 18 at Poulsbo’s Waterfront Park as part of the Summer Nights on the Bay concert series.

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