When Leo Wenner started driving a school bus in 1958, it was a 1952 Ford straight shift with a two-speed axle. Now, he drives a GMC automatic – quite a contrast. But then, there are countless ways life has changed in the 58 years he has driven for Royalton School District.
“When I started, the district had three bus routes, with a 1948 International bus, a 1951 Ford bus and my 1952 Ford,” Leo remembered. “Now there are eight bus routes.”
Leo has driven his current bus for 10 years. It has 217,000 miles on it now.
Leo Wenner, of Royalton, started his bus route in 1958. He still drives. The school district estimates that Wenner has driven over 678,000 miles just on his route, not counting field trips, over the last 59 years. Photo by Jennie Zeitler
“Leo told me how he passed his bus drivers test while driving a car, not a bus,” said Sue Oelrich, district transportation supervisor. “We figured that he has put on 678,300 miles just doing routes. That doesn’t include field trip miles.”
Back in 1958, Leo was a newlywed. He and his new wife, Joan, had settled down in Royalton, where Leo grew up. Over the years, they raised five kids. Now, they have 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. They will be celebrating their 60th anniversary later this year.
Leo has done a number of other things over the years, but through it all, he continued driving bus. For a number of years, he worked with an electrician in Royalton, Ronnie Kray. Later, Leo repaired television sets and radios.
“I could do that at home in the garage,” he said.
At one time, he and Joan took care of the laundromat in Royalton.
Some of the procedures for bus driving have changed over the years.
“We have inspections once a year now by the state,” Leo said. “Sometimes they do surprise inspections. It’s important to keep the bus clean inside and out.”
There are different procedures in place for discipline now than there used to be.
“Now, the kids have to stay off the bus for a couple days if they misbehave,” said Leo. “There are slips for the drivers to fill out. Most of the time, kids are pretty good.”
In addition to driving, Leo works in the bus shop three hours a day, doing small maintenance and repair jobs on the busses. Among other things, that includes putting in new lightbulbs and repairing ripped seats.
“Leo runs our ‘upholstery department,’” said Sue. “He makes sure all the seats are patched and looking good.”
In all his 58 years of driving, Leo went in the ditch only one time.
“About three years ago was the only time,” he said. “I wasn’t going very fast, but it was muddy, and it sucked me right in. There were four or five busses in the ditch that day.”
While he is very thankful that he has never hit a deer, Leo remembers a near-miss.
“One time a deer ran into the side of the bus,” he said. “It wasn’t hurt and ran off right away.”
“Leo is a gentleman who never complains. He comes to work and safely brings the kids to and from school,” Sue said. “But for the last 15 years, he’s been saying ‘this is my last year.’ Of course, this is said with a grin on his face.”
In 2011, Leo was inducted into the Royalton Hall of Fame, when he had been driving for 52 years. As a lifelong resident of Royalton and an employee with 58 years under his belt, he has reached a level of dedication to the district that few can match.
Leo Wenner has driven school bus in Royalton since 1959. He drove the grandparents of some of his current passengers to school. Photo by Jennie Zeitler
Recently, some of his passengers are worried that he really will be retiring. To show their appreciation, his riders and their parents shower him with gifts.
“At Christmas, a girl wrote me a letter thanking me for waiting for her every day (since she was sometimes kind of pokey),” said Leo. “When school ended last spring, it was just like Christmas!”
“He came home with bundles of gifts,” Joan said. “Sometimes people send home eggs and pickled fish with him.”
“One girl told me that she hopes Leo can be her driver until she graduates,” Sue said. “She is in first-grade!”
Leo used to drive on field trips to Duluth and Minneapolis. He still drives bus to St. Cloud, but has cut out the long-distance trips.
Although Leo doesn’t have a specific date in mind when he’s going to retire, Joan said, “He’s been thinking about it for a while.” It’s not easy to contemplate days that don’t include driving bus.
“I believe after 58 years, Leo’s blood has turned to school bus yellow!!” said Sue.