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Innerviews: Bus company fixture on retirement route

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Friday, after 29 years with the bus company, Bill Diaz hits the road to retirement. He has an administrative title now: operations manager. But the best part of all those years, the operation he most enjoyed, was behind the wheel of a bus or trolley.

He saw plenty of changes during his tenure as a driver. He remembers when buses ran 365 days a year no matter what, when the base fare was a quarter, when the company got its first air-conditioned, power-steered bus in 1982.

What he missed most working behind a desk was the camaraderie with his passengers, the second family he refers to as "my people."

At 61, he could work longer, of course. But there's this wistful matter of misplaced priorities. For nearly four decades, he put the job first. Now, he wants time for his flesh-and-blood family.

 

"I grew up out on what they called Slip Hill in the Two-Mile area, out toward Sissonville. My dad was a forklifter for National Lead. There were 13 of us. They adopted two more, so eventually there were 15.

"My father was from Mexico. He spoke broken English. I don't know how he ventured up this far to marry my mother. It's something we should have asked and didn't. Now they're both gone.

"I thought I wanted to go into some sort of law enforcement. Working for the bus company was the farthest thing from my mind.

"I started working when I was 15. Back in '65, I worked at the Chuck Wagon Restaurant on Summers Street, first as a dishwasher, then as a short-order cook.

"The people who ran the Chuck Wagon, George and Pete, taught me how to fix the orders. They had what they called the Chuck Wagon, a double-decker hamburger with Thousand Island dressing on it.

"In 1968, I started working at the Certified Gas Station, pumping gas. I made $1 an hour. Next I went to Bonded Oil on Pennsylvania and Lee Street.

"That's where I met my wife, Helen. She was a customer. She was driving a little green Volkswagen. We were still doing full service then, checking the oil and transmission fluid, washing windshields.

"We had little whistles, and when a car came on the lot, you blew your whistle to let other employees know that was your customer. It was love at first sight, but the first couple of times she came in, I didn't want to wait on her. Eventually they all said I needed to go wait on her. So we started talking. I met her in '70 and we married in '71.

"Russell Jones, a gentleman I worked with at Bonded Oil, he quit there and came to work here. He kept telling me to put in an application at the bus company. I said I didn't want to work there.

"I finally went down and put in my application. I told the manager I was there because of Russell, but I really didn't want a job. He told me to fill in the application and we'd see where it went.

"That was a Monday. On Wednesday, he called and said he had a physical exam set up for me. I kept saying I didn't want to drive a bus. He said I would start training that Monday. They needed drivers left and right, because we had all kinds of service back then.

"I started out on the extra board, filling in for somebody on vacation. The drivers who trained me put me at ease, and I liked the customers right off the bat.

"It was about three months before I picked up my own run, Nitro-St. Albans, a night run. I was on that probably six months before a senior operator bid on it and got it.

"Then I bid on Loudon Heights and had that for about a year. My customers were basically the maids who worked for the families there on the hill.

"The longest run I had was the trolley. I drove it for three years. Another one I liked was the DuPont Express. We started in Clendenin and picked up DuPont workers, then got on the interstate and took them up to the plant.

"You basically have the same people you see every day. We knew each other by our first names. When I drove Cabin Creek to St. Albans, Shirley Andrews made the best pumpkin pie you ever tasted. She would bring me a whole pie to take home to the family.

"I got so close to my people. I call them 'my people,' but I mean my passengers. They even had a baby shower for my wife. We'd have birthday parties on my buses. It was one big happy bunch of people, a family. I never had any trouble the whole 14 years I drove a bus.

"You knew when they were sick. Somebody on bus would say, 'Ruth is in the hospital today having an operation.' They'd bring birthday cards and get-well cards, and we'd all sign the cards.

"I drove the trolley when the Regatta was going on. I met people from Australia, Germany, England. I liked hearing the stories of people from other countries.

"The trolley went up Virginia Street to the Capitol, back down Quarrier Street to Randolph to Pennsylvania north and right back up again. You got to meet more interesting people on the trolley.

"When the Regatta was going on, we had a bus we decorated as a sternwheeler and entered in the parade. We got a couple of trophies. And we always decorated a bus for the Charleston Christmas parade.

"We don't have a bus we decorate now, but we do decorate a trolley. It's in every parade, Nitro, St. Albans, Montgomery, Belle, East Bank, wherever they have a parade in Kanawha County.

"When I started, we ran 365 days a year, seven days a week, no matter what. Weren't even closed for Christmas or New Year's. Even in snowstorms, we still went out. I've been out in everything.

"We have 65 big buses, four hybrids, and 13 KAT buses for the handicapped. We have 69 runs now. About 27 are straight runs. The rest are split shifts. You work a little in the morning and come back in the evening.

"I never had straight shifts except when I was on the trolley. I would come in at 4 or 5 in the morning and work until about 10, go home and come back out at 3 and work until 5 or 6.

"When I first started, our buses had air brakes and no power steering or air conditioning. We got our first air-conditioned bus with power steering in '82. The buses we have now compared to when I started are like Cadillacs. They've got air ride on them. They kneel so you can lower the bus against the curb. And they have ramps for wheelchairs and bike racks.

"We have ADA announcers. We used to announce the stops ourselves with a microphone. The Huntington bus has Wi-Fi.

"Prices haven't changed that much. When I started, the base fare was 25 cents and zones were a nickel. Now bus fare is a dollar and every other zone is a quarter.

"Ridership is up. There are still people who don't have cars and want to leave the driving to professionals -- that's what we call ourselves. Parking spaces in town are hard to find. Gas now is $3.79 a gallon. It's easier to ride a bus. You can take a bus to Huntington for $4.

"In '87, I came to management as a dispatcher. From there, I moved to street supervisor. I'm director of operations now. One thing I like about that is, when we hire new drivers, I get to train them.

"The street supervisor checks on the drivers to make sure they're running on time. If it snows, they're the first one out to check the roads. So at 3:30 in the morning, I would get a phone call from dispatchers saying it was snowing and I needed to check the routes. Whether or not to send out the drivers was my call.

"I always put this place in front of the family. I'm getting up there in years. We have four grandkids besides our two daughters. I want to spend time with them and my wife.

"I think my life turned out real well. I met a lot of people I never would have met doing anything else. I've never met a stranger.

"My only regret is not doing a lot more things with my girls because of putting work first. I'm a pretty satisfied person. If I can just do things with the grandkids and make them happy, that's what this old man wants to do."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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