Sleepy Eye bus driver’s 40 years behind the wheel

To put into perspective how long Karen Stephens has been driving school bus in Sleepy Eye, consider that when she first got behind the wheel, her only daughter was in the first-grade.

That daughter, Shannon Novak, is now a 46-year-old grandmother living in Sauk Centre.

Karen Stephens has been driving bus for about 40 years. She is pictured at the bus garage, preparing for her daily route with the Sleepy Eye School District. Photo by Scott Thoma

“It will be 40 years that I’ve been driving at the end of the school year,” said Stephens, 72. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Stephens has built a reputation of a disciplinarian who is both strict and fair to the students that ride her bus.

“Karen does and fantastic job, and the kids that ride her bus are well behaved,” said Tim Schieffert, the co-owner of Sleepy Eye Bus Service. “Like several of our (retirement-eligible) drivers, Karen doesn’t have to be here, but she loves her job.”

And the kids riding her bus adhere to her rules out of respect and admiration for her. She treats each of them in almost a motherly fashion, strict when she needs to be, but also kind and caring when the situation warrants.

“I have one biological child and then I have all the other kids that have ridden my bus,” she remarked.

Many of the other Sleepy Eye bus drivers remarked about how strict Stephens is while waiting in the bus garage before going out on their routes at the end of the school day.

“Are you riding with her today?” one driver asked the author of this article before a ride-along. “You’d better behave yourself.”

“Watch out. She’s the strictest of all of the drivers,” laughed another driver.

Stephens laughs along with each comment in a manner that exudes the pride she has in her disciplinarian style.

“I ran into a guy recently that used to ride my bus a long time ago, and he had his two daughters with him,” Stephens recalled. “He told his daughters ‘This is your new bus driver and you will behave.’”

On this day, the children board her bus after school, and most of them greet the driver with a pleasant “Hi Karen.”

And each one quietly and politely finds a seat aboard her bus number 58. The kids aren’t expected to ride the bus quietly as if they were in a library. But they respect the rules, the driver, and each other.

“They are all great kids,” Stephens said as she pulled out of her parking spot in front of the public school and headed over to the Catholic school to pick up more students.

When Stephens first began driving school kids, it was in a van for the Head Start program.

“Shannon was in first-grade so it worked out well for me to start driving,” Stephens said. “If there was a snow day, I wouldn’t have to find a sitter because we would both be home. We would have the same schedule for holidays and have the summer off, too.”

Stephens drove for the Head Start kids for 5 1/2 years before budget cuts defunded the program.

“I then started to drive the regular school bus and have been driving buses ever since,” she said. “When I first started driving, the buses all had clutches. Now they are mostly all automatic (transmission).”

Driving a manual transmission or big equipment wasn’t unfamiliar to Stephens, who drove tractor on her family farm growing up in Wabasso.

“And Roger taught me how to drive a clutch before I started driving bus,” she said about her husband of 52 years. “The funny thing is, I ended up being his behind-the-wheel instructor when he became a bus driver.”

Roger worked as a linemen for the city of Sleepy Eye for 36 years and also drove bus for seven years. He retired 11 years ago.

So, what does Roger think of his wife still driving bus after all these years?

“I like sitting here and collecting her paycheck,” he wisecracked.

Stephens picked up the remaining students at St. Mary’s Catholic School, many who also greeted her. She checked her overhead mirror to make sure all the 20 K-12 students were seated, and headed out.

As she headed out of town on her country route, Stephens seemingly turned into a tour guide, pointing out various landmarks in the rural area, such as unusual terrains, the river valley where an eagle soared in front of the bus, a forested area where she has had to make quick stops to avoid deer and other animals running across the road, and the area where a pioneer village called “Golden Gate” once stood many years ago.

“This is also why I still love driving,” she said. “It’s so pretty out here. Even in the winter.”

Without being told, two girls moved to the front of the bus and sat in the “jump seat” behind the driver’s seat.

“That’s one of my rules,” explained Stephens. “When I am getting close to the kids’ stop, they come up and sit in the front. It saves a lot of time instead of stopping and waiting for them to get all their things and walk to the front of the bus.”

A student is greeted by Karen Stephens as he steps on the bus for his ride home after school. Photo by Scott Thoma

As the girls departed the bus, they each said “Goodnight Karen.” Two boys then moved up and sat in the jump seat in preparation for their upcoming stop.

“I never have to remind any of them to sit up front,” said Stephens. “They’re really good kids and don’t give me any trouble at all.”

But what has given her trouble over her four decades of driving school bus are a few drivers who fail to honor the bus laws when the flashing lights are on and the stop arm is out to indicate students getting on or off the bus.

“I’ve had it happen too often,” she said in a stern voice. “I’ve had to turn a few people in. You really have to pay attention and watch out for drivers like that.”

And winters can be brutal for a bus driver, especially out on the country roads that get plowed last.

“I’ve been stuck a few times,” Stephens said. “Most bus drivers have been stuck a time or two.”

And she’s even run over a deer and had to hit the brakes a few times to avoid hitting others as her route is lined with wooded areas.

“One time when it was the first snow of the fall, there were ruts in the road from where some of the vehicles had driven,” she said, “and I’m going down a hill and a big doe comes running out of the ditch and onto the road in front of the bus.

“I hit the brakes, and the bus starts going sideways down the hill. The deer tripped, and I watched it go under the front of the bus in my cross-over mirrors. And then one of the boys on the bus shouts ‘There she goes.’ The deer went out from under the one side of the bus, gets up and runs across the field. We didn’t go in the ditch, but my hands were shaking so bad.”

After Stephens let a few more kids off the bus, a young girl moved to the front of the bus and informed the driver that she has a bloody nose.

“Well, stop letting your brothers beat on you,” Stephens joked as the girl displayed a wide smile.

On a country gravel road, Stephens checked for traffic and maneuvered the bus to the shoulder and stopped. She then transformed from bus driver to mother.

“Here, sweetie,” she said, handing the girl a paper towel to apply to her nose. “Here’s an extra one for you, too, just in case.”

Before starting out again, Stephens asked the girl if her mother would be home when she got there. If not, Stephens would make sure the girl’s nosebleed had stopped completely before allowing her to exit the bus.

“Yeah, she’s home,” was the girl’s polite response. Her nose had already stopped bleeding shortly before she got home. Stepping off the bus, the girl said “Goodbye, Karen.”

A few stops later, a girl and her sister got off the bus to begin a walk down a long driveway to their farmhouse. The older sister wasn’t wearing a coat, even though it was only 15 degrees out with a brisk wind to boot.

“Where’s your coat?” Stephens asked.

“In my backpack,” was the quick response.

“Put it on, kiddo,” Stephens told her.

As the sisters began sauntering down the driveway, Stephens waited for a moment before taking off.

After only a few steps, the girl retrieved her jacket out of the backpack. She then handed the backpack to her sister and put the coat on.

And with that, Stephens began the journey back into town to conclude another day.

“They really are all good kids,” she said again, “that’s why I’m still driving.”