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Big wheels keep on turnin'

Donna Nicholson said the urge to drive, particularly her attachment to school buses, must be in her blood. "I don't know what it is," she said. "I certainly wasn't born with a steering wheel in my hand. I didn't even get my driver's license until I was 21." Phil Pfuehler photo

She claims to be 72 but take away that 2 and you have an idea of what the start of a school year means to Donna Nicholson.

"I don't know who's more excited, me or the kids," she laughed last Thursday. "I woke up at 4:30 today because I have to go on a dry run to meet the kids and the parents. I can't wait for school to begin."

Nicholson has driven school bus in River Falls since March 1967-- Lyndon Johnson was president; the Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was the No. 1 album.

That's 42 ½ years on the job. She drives a 170-mile daily route.

Naturally, a reporter might ask, 'So how much longer will you work, Donna?'

"Indefinitely," comes the reply. "I feel great. I love the kids, and I love to drive, especially driving a school bus. That's the qualifications for this job. The kids are really what make your day."

For most of her career, Nicholson's passengers -- from preschoolers to elderly teens -- have been "special needs" students.

Nicholson said she handles the kids as if they were her own, which, in a way, they are. She tries to reassure parents because "I am taking their most prized possessions from home, putting them on the bus, and getting them to school."

"I love the children. They are so random with their comments. You never know what they're going to say," Nicholson said. "Sometimes we do sing-alongs, which I initiate.

"Usually it's Jingle Bells, and we sing that for nine months until it's almost worn out by the end, though we change the words to fit different occasions. Some of the kids can't sing or even utter a word, but they try to follow along."

Nicholson also occupies her passengers by having them spot deer or turkeys along rural roads.

"They also like looking for horses and cows, but even though we talk, they really don't need me to entertain them," she said.

Nicholson hasn't thought about retiring because the job of school bus driver is like "never having to go to work a day in my life."

As a 72-year-old bus driver, she gets two sets of advice: "The people I know who have already retired have encouraged me to stay on. I don't know if it's because of boredom or what, so that's an incentive for me to stick with it.

"But people who are still working, they look at you like, 'Are you weird or what?'

Read more about how Donna got her wheels in the Sept. 3 print edition of the River Falls Journal.