Hunter O’Dell will miss his kids.
The retiring Salida school bus driver said, “My philosophy of driving them is once they get on my bus, they are my kids.
O’Dell has been a fixture for a couple of generations of Salida students, with his signature Green Bay Packers cap and his customary “good morning” and “good night” to each student on his daily runs.
For more than 22 years he has delivered students to and from school and driven them all over the state for field trips, competitions and games.
He learned to drive a school bus while working for a rafting company and was later hired by the district because of his conscientiousness as a driver, he said.
That first year as a district driver was rough, with a bus full of rowdy kids. He said he wondered if he would make it through that first year.
The following year, he said, all of the troublemakers had left and he’s enjoyed the job ever since.
In recent years he has driven the children of the kids he drove during the beginning of his job with the district.
He’s become such a part of some students’ lives that he has been invited to graduations and graduation parties and even a wedding.
Over the years O’Dell has collected a lot of memories.
One that stands out is a seventh- and eighth-grade basketball team trip to Gunnison in late fall not long after he started.
Snow was falling as the bus left Salida and had become worse coming back.
As the bus crested Monarch Pass going east, O’Dell said there were people cross-country skiing in the middle of the road in about a foot of snow.
On the way back down they passed two jackknifed tractor-trailers, and crews were dumping snow off the side of the road in the avalanche area.
Passing the worker who was directing traffic, there was just enough room to get by without hitting the man with the bus’s fish-eye mirror.
“When we got back to Salida, no snow,” he chuckled.
O’Dell said he had four rules on his bus: Get in. Sit Down. Be quiet. Hold on.
“I got kids smiling when I said that, he said.
“My theory is I don’t care if it’s a Wells Fargo truck, military vehicle or grocery truck, the cargo I carry is more valuable.”
The bus driver’s day can be a long one, especially when driving the team bus. Trips can start as early as 4 a.m. and last until late into the evening.
It has been O’Dell’s practice to get Salida teams as close to the entry door as possible, letting them know where he will be after the game and warming up the bus before the team gets back on for the trip home.
During games, “sometime’s I’d go in and watch, sometimes I’d sleep on the bus,” he said.
O’Dell said he has a lot of fond memories from the job and the kids and adults he’s worked with.
He said Transportation Director Evalyn Parks has been a great boss.
“She has had all of the drivers’ backs from the word go and given full support and guidance at all times,” O’Dell said. “Since Evalyn has been here, I’ve told her if she ever decides to quit, my two weeks’ notice goes in that day.”
“It makes me feel my life has been worthwhile thanks to these kids and Evalyn and all the drivers I worked with and Paul (the transportation department mechanic),” he said.
O’Dell’s health has made it necessary to give up the job he loves. He has had trouble with his back and knees that makes it difficult for him to drive a school bus.
Although the decision to retire was not one he wanted to make, O’Dell said he would do “nothing, ever, to jeopardize kids” and thought it would be safer to quit.
“It gave me a reason to get up in the morning, and at my age I need that,” he said.
O’Dell’s first priority in retirement is to take care of himself and his health.
Then he plans to do as much boating in the 1952 Dyer powerboat he inherited from his father and refurbished. He has had it out on Blue Mesa Reservoir and hopes to take it up to his native Michigan to fish for walleye in Lake Huron.
He also hopes to do some traveling, although he said he made his dream trip last summer when he visited Pearl Harbor.
O’Dell’s father was stationed there and served on the aircraft carrier USS Belleau Wood in the South Pacific during World War II.
O’Dell leaves another legacy to Salida School District beside his long service as a bus driver. In December he donated a 35-star Civil War-era flag that used to hang in his boyhood bedroom to Longfellow Elementary School, where it was put on display in the school lobby.