Cover, Features

Minnie Wilder : Impacting Thousands of Effingham Students

story by Kelly Harley     photos by Shelia Scott
Tears fill Minnie Wilder’s eyes as she talks about retirement. The 77-year-old Effingham County native admits that being officially retired hasn’t hit her yet. As she shares her life story, it’s easy to understand why this new phase in her life brings with it mixed emotions. She dedicated nearly 48 years of her life in order to have a positive impact on the thousands of students’ lives she touched.
The Good Ole’ Days
If you went to school in Effingham County and rode a school bus, there’s a chance Minnie Wilder was behind the wheel. In 1970, at the advice of her friend, she became a substitute driver and drove pretty much as often as a regular driver. A year later, she was a full-time bus driver. “For my training, I made one big circle on the football field and away I went,” recalls Minnie. She chuckles thinking about that now as she talks about all of the required training that is necessary to drive today.
Back then, Minnie, only 118 pounds, had to improvise in order to drive the school bus. “There was no power steering, there were hydraulic brakes and the steering wheel felt like one of the big tires. I had to have the seat up high to turn the wheel, a block put on the gas pedal to reach it and had the seat completely unbolted and moved forward,” says Minnie. As Minnie flips through a scrapbook she made after retiring, there are pictures of her sitting behind the wheel. The tiny lady with a big smile looks just as happy as can be and even more comfortable. “The buses used to be stick shift and I had to open the door with all my arm strength,” says Minnie. Throughout Minnie’s career, she went through four new buses. Her first new bus was automatic, which was a big step up. The last bus she drove had air conditioning and instead of using her arm to open the door, she just turned a knob.
Making a Difference on the Roads
Spending 48 years on the road, it’s safe to say Minnie is as experienced as they come. She recalls one technique she implemented a long time ago. “I started the tradition of pulling over and letting cars go by. I would see lines of cars behind me, so if I had more than six cars waiting, I would find a safe place to pull over and let the cars pass,” says Minnie. “Cars will try to pass and that could be a danger. Eventually, other bus drivers started doing the same thing and now it’s a rule.”
In Minnie’s scrapbook, there are newspaper clippings of things she’s done in her years as a driver. One article was written 19 years after she started driving. The headline reads, “Bus driver thought fast, avoided wreck.” The story is about the time Minnie used her skills to prevent injuries to her young passengers. She was stopped letting kids off and noticed a truck with a trailer full of produce barreling down the road. She knew the driver wouldn’t be able to stop in time, so she acted fast. She yelled at the kids to cross quickly and pulled to the side of the road. The driver slammed into the stopped cars behind her; however, because of her quick thinking, the cars didn’t slam into the back of her bus.
Other articles mention her trips to the State Capitol to discuss issues related to school bus drivers with state legislators, as well as her participation in Road-eos where Minnie competed against other drivers in a series of bus movements that prepared drivers for the safe transportation of students. She also has plenty of training certificates that highlight her years of dedication. While Minnie spent many hours transporting children, she also was a school bus trainer, passing on her knowledge to other drivers just starting their careers. “The safety features have come a long way. Buses as a whole have come a long way and the changes are impressive,” says Minnie. “As a driver, you have to attend safety meetings once a month, attend defensive driving courses, participate in classroom and on-the-road training, remain CPR certified and have regular physicals.”
Minnie also drove the bus for extracurricular activities to include band and sports. She remembers one time she took kids on a trip to the mountains of Boone, North Carolina, and had to drive in the snow and ice. “While the trip was fun, driving in that weather was not,” Minnie says with a smile.
Making a Difference in the Classroom
If driving a school bus wasn’t enough, Minnie eventually found her way inside the classroom. She spent two years as a substitute teacher before becoming a paraprofessional in the County’s alternative school where she assisted teachers in the classroom. She later started working at Effingham County High School with special needs students. She spent 13 years as a paraprofessional and kept up her duties as a school bus driver. “It was there I became part of the children’s lives. As the years passed, the children I met while subbing in lower grades, started coming up in high school. I even got to attend senior prom with some of the students,” says Minnie. After spending time with these students, an opening became available to drive the special needs bus. Minnie accepted the position and spent 13 years behind the wheel of that bus. For Minnie it came full circle; she drove some of the children of the kids she drove when she first started driving.
“I feel like I made an impact and a difference. When you pick up a child, you don’t know how their life is at home. When they step on board, you can make their day by just saying good morning,” says Minnie. She says it was the same thing in the afternoons when students headed home from school. “The kids may have had a bad day and I was there to talk to them. Many would give me a hug and I would help take their minds off whatever was going on.”
Plans for the Future
As Minnie reminisces about her highly successful career and the joys she experienced over the years, she can’t help but think about the future. The retiree has big plans and they don’t include slowing down. She has three children, four grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, a cat and a dog who will keep her plenty busy. “I love to spend time with my family and I enjoy being outdoors. I love camping, fishing, kayaking, bicycling, quilting and riding my four-wheeler,” Minnie says with a big smile. At 70, she bought herself the four-wheeler and last year she bought a new Volkswagen Beetle. “Now I feel like if I want to take a trip, I can fill up and hit the road,” says Minnie with a big smile.
While she talks about the fun she plans on having, she admits she has another plan for retirement. “I have everything I need so that I can still substitute on the special needs bus if they ever need me,” adds Minnie. “When I told the kids I was retiring, they didn’t want me to. I told them they may see me again.” That will likely be the case. While Minnie may have hung up her full-time keys, she still has a spark and a desire to get behind the wheel. After all, the thrill of spending nearly half a century doing what you love doesn’t go away overnight.
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