For 70 years, bus driver shuttled generations of students: 'I just enjoyed what I was doing'

Nour Habib, The Virginian-Pilot on

Published in Lifestyles

SUFFOLK, Va. -- Rutherford UIysses Whitfield was one month shy of his 16th birthday in May 1954. He was sitting in math class at the all-Black East Suffolk High School when his principal walked in with an idea.

The school bus was parked in his family’s yard because his house was the first on the route.

“He said, ‘Well, since the bus is in your yard, you might as well get your license and drive.’”

And that’s what Whitfield did — for 70 years. He retired Friday from Suffolk Public Schools.

In the early days, he felt like he was driving his family. He’d get ready for school, rev up No. 39 and pick up his peers. He’d let the elementary kids off first, then head to the high school. He earned $35 a month. The 85-year-old said high schoolers were more mature in his day.

“The bigger kids would look out for the smaller kids.”

Whitfield got other jobs, including working as a cafeteria director at one of the division’s high schools and then as an assistant in the emergency room at Obici Hospital for 31 years. But he continued driving for Suffolk.

“I just enjoyed what I was doing,” he said.

Beverly Young, a transportation supervisor for the division, said Whitfield also is dedicated to the job. He rarely misses work. Young has worked with Whitfield for nearly a decade and said he navigates the job in a way that only someone who’s done it for so long can — particularly when it comes to managing children.

“It can be a thankless job,” she said. Drivers need to know how to speak to children and Whitfield has mastered that skill. “That’s not something that’s easy.”

Whitfield recently ran into a student he used to drive, who recounted that he would make her sweep the bus when she misbehaved.

“Back then, you could do that,” he said.

She told him she had gone to college, earned a master’s degree and is now a school counselor in Portsmouth.


“She told me she appreciated what I did.”

Whitfield has driven generations of students, in some cases, kids, parents and grandparents from the same family. As the news of his retirement has come out, many former students left Facebook messages sharing memories.

“One fellow said I was a ‘cool’ bus driver,” Whitfield said, chuckling.

He said getting along with the students wasn’t too difficult. He knew that much of their behavior toward him wasn’t personal, but a result of problems they were having at home.

“I’d just say, ‘What’s the matter? What’s the matter, do you need to talk to me about something?’ And then they’d realize that they’d sounded off on me, then they’d come back and apologize.”

Whitfield knows his route by heart. He’s got traffic lights down to the minute, knows when the trains run and keeps up with updated completion timelines for road construction projects. He watches the news every morning to hear the traffic report, so he can plan an alternate route if needed.

These days, Whitfield wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to make it to his first stop at 6:19 a.m. Running on schedule is one of his top priorities. His route takes him all over the city as he picks up out-of-zone students and brings them to a specialty program at Lakeland High School. After a short break, he hits the road to pick up students from the division’s three high schools and drives them to The Governor’s School in Norfolk. He heads back to Suffolk to take students home, dropping off his last kids around 6:30 p.m. He drives for field trips, collecting mementos that he has turned into a book. Whitfield has driven 14 buses — all brand new when they were assigned to him.

Whitfield insists the long days do not bother him. He says the kids are what he’ll miss most after retirement. But he doesn’t plan to be gone for long. Whitfield will return in the fall as a substitute.

He’s also involved in the community. He has played piano for four churches over the years and performed at the 1990 commencement for the last graduating class from Suffolk High School. While working at the school cafeteria, he noticed that some of his co-workers needed notary services. He became a notary.

On Thursday afternoon, a Suffolk firefighter driving by the transportation center hopped out of his truck. He didn’t know Whitfield but had seen news of his career and retirement on TV.

“I just wanted to shake his hand.”

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