AMBOY – Velma Quest has dozens of grandchildren.
Only a few of them are really hers; the rest are the children she drives to and from school on a big, yellow school bus.
Quest has driven a bus for the Amboy School District since 1965. She’s hauled hundreds of students and logged thousands of miles over her nearly 50 years behind the wheel. But she’s ready to turn in her keys – in 2 weeks, just 2 days before her 80th birthday.
“[The children and their parents] are not looking forward to me leaving,” Quest said. “I really didn’t announce it on the bus. I’m not going to tell them my last day until they get off the bus that night.”
Quest never wanted to be a bus driver; she was content as a farmer, housewife and mother. But some Amboy school officials thought she should rumble down the country roads in southern Lee County; the then-superintendent stuck a folded-up piece of paper – an application for a school bus driver position – in her apron pocket at a summer church picnic.
“I looked at it and I thought, ‘Oh, can I do this or not?’” she recalled. “The driving I didn’t mind. But the hauling kids, the responsibility, I worried about.
“[My husband] knew I could do it,” she said. “But my mother just had a fit. … After a while, I really enjoyed it.”
When she started, Quest drove the rural route on the familiar roads near her home, going between the schools in Maytown and Sublette. For more than 30 years, she never had to drive into Amboy; she even kept the bus (and a barrel of gasoline) on the farm.
Now, in the morning, Quest reports to the bus garage at the junior high school, picks up 50-some kids in Sublette and the surrounding area, and drops them off in Amboy; then, in the afternoon, she picks them up from school, drives them home, and returns the bus to the garage. It’s a 58-mile trip every day.
Quest isn’t the stereotypical bus driver. She’s petite and well-dressed, and she’s got a big, warm smile and a gentle voice. Quest doesn’t seem like someone who can command a busload of fidgety schoolchildren. But she has her ways.
“I know when something’s going on,” she said. “If they’re really loud, then they’re up to something. Or if they get really quiet and hunch down in their seats, then they’re up to something. I just look in the mirror, and I raise my finger. I don’t even say anything.”
Quest always loved the children on her bus. And they loved her just as much – maybe more.
“They were all so different,” she said. “But you could just about tell how each one was going to be every day all through their school years. The last one [on the bus] was always the last one. The late ones were always the late ones. They never changed.
“I got a lot of hugs over the years. They would get on the bus and tell me what happened that day in school or if something happened at home. … Some kids don’t have anyone else to go to. I’ve been called ‘Mom’ and ‘Grandma’ and everything else. It’s good to hear.”
After so many years behind the wheel, Quest has seen the heads of entire families bobbing in her big rear-view mirror overhead. It’s not uncommon for people to stop her at church, at restaurants or on the street and reminisce about their school days.
“It just gets me. These older boys come up to me and say, ‘Hi, Velma! How are you doing?’ … or these ladies come up to me at work and say, ‘My little boy is riding your bus. Do you remember when I rode it?’” she said. “I have to run through all these names and faces and remember who they are and when they were in school. They’ve all changed so much.”
Tina Lindenmeyer, 39, a seventh-grade teacher in Amboy, thinks of Quest as a second mom – and now, a second grandma to her four children.
“She always had a smile on her face,” she said. “It’s neat to watch my kids experience that as well. We’re sad that we’re going to be losing her to retirement.”
Tiffany Blake, 42, the assistant manager at Vivid Tan in Amboy, remembers Quest as a sweet lady.
“She was always happy, never grouchy. She’s just a sweet person,” Blake said. “She teases me still to this day because I was always the last one on the bus. ... and now my son is slow, too; she says he’s just like his mother.”
Quest begrudgingly looks forward to retirement. She won’t miss the early-morning wake-up call, but she will miss the children and her second family at the bus garage.
The folks at the garage dread her last day.
“She makes the day,” said Jim Mahar, the next-most senior driver on staff.
“The day she leaves is going to be very hard for all of us,” said Jennifer Gazza, an Amboy driver for 3 years.
Quest plans to continue working at the Countryside Inn, where she cooks Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. She also plans to spend time with her family, including her 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.