It didn’t take much time on the job for long-time bus driver Verl Coates to realize the secret to having students of all ages behave themselves while on the school bus. Coates found out early that if he supported the students in their various sports and activities, they would treat him with respect in return.
“Before I was a bus driver, I would attend my own kids’ swim meets and see the bus drivers inside the bus during the event reading a book instead of supporting the kids,” Coates said. “As soon as I started, I realized that if I supported the kids they were a lot better in their behavior toward me.”
Coates, 75, is now is his 23rd year as a bus driver for the Tooele County School District. After retiring in 1990 from a 25-year career at Tooele Army Depot as a mechanic inspector, Coates decided to apply to be a bus driver without even hearing about any openings at the district.
It was just his luck that there was an opening at that time for a bus route to transport the special needs students at Oquirrh Hills Elementary. Coates said he fit right in driving a bus from the beginning. Some of his best memories of driving a bus came when he transported the special needs children to the Special Olympics and watched them compete for numerous years.
When Coates took the job, he tried his best to take it seriously and even spiced up the dress code.
“The district gave us new shirts when we started so I started wearing a tie with it to drive the bus,” Coates said. “Some of the bus drivers gave me a hard time for wearing a tie, but I also received compliments on it.”
Supporting the students during their activities helped Coates build a solid relationship with those on his bus, and the family-size bag of M&M’s that he would share with them would also sweeten the relationships.
“I have brought the bag of M&M’s for a long time and it works for me,” Coates said. “And if I don’t bring a bag then I hear about it.”
Coates enjoys not only being a bus driver but he also feels at times that he is somewhat of a grandfather figure to the students he transports. Being called grandpa by students is powerful to Coates even though he has many grandchildren of his own. He said he has even defended some students that he transports when bad situations have occurred. Once, Coates noticed one of his female students being harassed by a male student.
“I just went up to that kid and told him that she is my granddaughter, and I said I didn’t appreciate him harassing her,” Coates said.
The male student quit harassing her immediately.
The biggest joy for Coates in being the supporting bus driver at athletic events or any other activity is the relationships that are built.
“The relationship with the kids is something special,” Coates said. “They are my best friends.”
The good relationships aren’t strictly with the students as Coates acknowledged that he feels administration also likes him around.
“I have the best job in the district,” Coates said. “I will keep driving bus until the district tells me not to or when I start to feel that I can’t handle the driving anymore.”
Even when it comes to the point when he can’t drive a bus anymore, Coates said he still expects to be a big supporter of local athletic teams and activities in the valley.
For the last two years, Coates has delivered students to strictly sporting events in bus No. 59 and other off-campus activities instead of having a morning and afternoon bus route.
For the most part Coates doesn’t have any say in what route he is driving, but at times the district has let him select a route for special occasions — like when his granddaughter was playing softball at Grantsville High School. The sport of softball has a special place in Coates’ heart. One of his favorite recent memories is when he was driving Tooele High School’s softball team to their games in 2010 when they took the 4A state championship.
“The softball teams is the group that I had the best relationship with at first,” Coates said. “It is still my favorite sport to watch and has had the most success.”
In a job he truly loves, Coates will continue to drive bus as long as he physically can and will continue to make friends along the way while supporting the students he transports.
“I would just like to admonish the drivers to show support to the students that they deliver,” Coates said. “If they do then the kids will treat them a lot better.”