In March 1969, Paul Huhtala stopped by the White River School District transportation department, where he picked up an application for his wife Mary to drive a school bus.
“I came home, gave it to her and she filled it out,” Paul said. “That was 43 years ago. That started it.”
“I figured he had his logging truck, and I thought if I could drive that around I could drive a bus,” Mary Huhtala said. “I always felt I was a driver I’ve always loved to drive.”
Mary Huhtala retired her seat behind the wheel earlier this year. During her four decades, she has toted generations of White River students from home to school and back, to athletic events, on field trips and up the hill for ski lessons.
Her scrapbook is filled with cards, color-crayon drawings, the “kitty” from her kindergarten bus window, class photographs, newspaper clippings and, neatly tucked in its pages, the second-place certificate Huhtala earned at the 1982 school bus rodeo.
When she started in 1969, she was one of seven drivers. Her test was a jaunt around town behind the wheel and then she was assigned a route that took her down one side and up the other of state Route 410 and into Buckley. There was no map, just a general direction to follow, she said.
At the time there were three schools – Wickersham, the old school which no longer exists, Wilkeson Elementary and the combined middle-high school.
The district’s buses were garaged at what is now the Glacier Middle School campus. Today, the fleet, nearly 50 strong, lines one side of SR410 on the outskirts of town. Drivers today go through extensive training and background checks with student safety the priority.
There are 33 drivers in White River’s bus barn these days, a combination of men and women, but in the days when Huhtala started, the majority of drivers were women. She said it was a good job that worked well with a family’s schedule.
That’s how her daughter Debbie Wentz followed in her mom’s footsteps. Wentz, who now handles the transportation department’s routing and some dispatching, started as a substitute in 1980 right out of high school and went full time in 1984.
Transportation Director Randy Gregg said there is very little turnover in the White River transportation department.
“We have a great team with a lot of experience,” said Gregg, who drove bus there for many years before taking over the helm recently. “We’re pretty proud of our team and what we are able to accomplish.”
In addition to working with Huhtala, he remembers riding her bus as a kindergarten student.
“Mary is an exceptional employee. Her heart and soul is in it for the kids and the district,” Gregg said.
“They’re my family,” Huhtala said of her friends in transportation. “I’m the Momma.”
Through the years, Huhtala also developed a relationship with the buses she drove, but her favorite was a 78-passenger beast, Bus No. 14.
“I wore the thing out,” she said, recalling the trips to Pasco and Spokane with White River High’s sports teams. “That bus was the best bus I ever drove.”
Huhtala wasn’t driving the No. 14 when it met its end in a head-on collision on SR410 in 1998, but she’s pretty sure its stoutness saved the driver’s life.
In all her years behind the wheel, Huhtala never was in an accident and never late for work. She said she took great pride in representing White River.
On her last day, Huhtala said the looming separation started to overwhelm her as she was fueling and cleaning Bus No. 51, one of the special needs buses she had been driving for the past 10 years.
She said it was Paul who started her on her career and Paul who encouraged her to retire.
Paul said retirement has been a difficult decision for his wife and he points to the 2001 Mazda Miata she sports around in when she’s not driving a school bus. “It was suppose to be her retirement car, now it’s almost wore out,” he chuckles.
An open house to celebrate Mary Huhtala’s retirement is set for 1 to 4 p.m. March 17 at the Buckley Eagles.