By Toni W. Riley
She has opened the folding door of a Christian County Public School bus for 41 years and was known to everyone as Miss Patsy or Mama Patsy. Patsy Willis retired from a regular bus route in 2001, but kept subbing and driving for field trips until 2013.
Over the years, Patsy drove bus routes for three elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, field trips too numerous to count, student conferences, adult conferences and has always kept a smile on her face while getting her riders where they needed to go — safely and securely.
She started driving a school bus right before the start of school in fall 1971. A friend encouraged her to apply. She called the bus garage and was asked if she thought she could drive a school bus. She said she thought so, since she had driven an 18-wheel tractor-trailer with her husband, Otho Lee Willis.
She was told to show up for training. She did and drove a bus up to the central office, turned around and drove back to the bus garage.
“That was my training,” she laughed.
She started her first route for
Indian Hills School a week before school started, and she said, “It was a great route for a new driver.”
Prior to the start of school, she got a list of her students and drove the route in her car, which included streets in the Indian Hills, Christian County Middle and High school
She laughed when she recalled the only negative experience she had in the seven years she drove the route was from a gentleman who thought she was ruining his grass whenever she had to turn the bus around.
“It was a really tight turn, and I was very careful to not get into his yard,” she remembered.
She was able to get her “dream” route in 1978 when a teacher’s route came open for Crofton. Back then, teachers were allowed to drive a bus as well as teach school. Luckily, Patsy was able to leave her bus at her home, since she lived within the Crofton district.
She would drive to the Empire community, wait 15 to 20 minutes for other buses to bring students to her from other Crofton routes and then pick up more students on her way to Crofton Elementary School.
“I was supposed to pick up the kids on the way up, but I didn’t see any sense in making them wait for 20 minutes on the bus, and I just got them on the way back and let them sleep a little more,” she winked.
Patsy’s most rewarding route was driving students to and from the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville every weekend for 29 years.
Every Friday, she and a monitor would leave Hopkinsville around 5 a.m. to pick up children from KSD who lived in Western Kentucky school districts. She would stop in Leitchfield on her way back, and drivers from other districts would meet her at Kentucky State Police Post 2 to take students further west. Then she would bring the Christian County students back to Hopkinsville. She repeated the process in reverse every Sunday afternoon to take the students back to Danville.
“We looked after kids,” she said. “We mothered them and helped any that were sick or needed other kinds of help.”
Patsy remembered one incident where a young student left her glasses in the restroom at a police post. When the glasses were found, they were given to a trooper who was heading toward Danville. Patsy was stopped in traffic at a wreck outside of Perryville, about 10 miles from Danville, when a trooper pulled up, got out of his car and handed her the glasses.
Whatever she had to do to accommodate her students, Patsy did.
One of her Kentucky School for the Deaf students lived in Oak Grove and was being raised by her grandmother. When the grandmother could no longer drive to meet the bus, Patsy received permission for either the monitor who lived in Oak Grove or herself to take the girl home in their personal vehicles on Friday and pick her up on Sunday. Years later when the student graduated from KSD, she asked Patsy, who no longer drove the route, to come to the ceremony and be her grandmother that day.
There were other special times in her career, like transporting home-economics students to co-op classes and helping them find prom dresses. Since then, she has been named an honorary member of the Christian County FFA and Future Business Leaders of America.
Field trips were a favorite part of Patsy’s career. Kim Batts, Hopkinsville Middle School teacher and Kentucky Youth Assembly sponsor, remembered riding Miss Patsy’s bus to numerous conferences when she was a student in high school. When she became a teacher and needed a driver for the annual KYA conference trip, she was quick to call on Patsy.
Batts said parents as well as students always wanted Miss Patsy as the driver because she always knew the way.
“They felt safe and she was part of the team,” Batts said. “Patsy was not just a bus driver; she participated in the conference and always loved seeing our students excel.”
Another trait Batts found important was Patsy wasn’t afraid to correct students when they weren’t following the rules.
Olivia Clark, Christian County FFA adviser, echoed the same sentiment.
“Patsy was a member of our FFA family,” she said. “Our students loved having her on our trips. We loved seeing her smiling face as we boarded the bus for our trips.”
Patsy experienced many changes during her career. When she first started, she had no form of communication with the bus garage or the schools, but drivers later used CB radios then mobile phones and had bus monitors and cameras.
The first bus she drove was an “Old International model with a straight shift and a clutch.” She got her first automatic in 1989.
There were lots of changes in procedure as well, including physicals and drug tests. Patsy noted, some of the changes were essential, but in 2013, she decided to park her bus driving career.
“There comes a time when you have to leave,” she said, “and it was time, with the pressure and the responsibility and the changes. It was a very good life, and I enjoyed every bit of it. It was just something that come natural to me.”
Patsy said she would tell any new driver that driving a bus is a good job. Drivers can be home with their own children on holidays and have a home life. But, she said, they have to remember that it’s a job where they are responsible for 60 children.
“They have to learn quickly and be patient,” she said.
Patsy’s philosophy for being a successful bus driver in Christian County was simple. She remembers being told in her early years of training to greet each student when they got on the bus and to remember that the driver was the first person the children saw when they left their parents. She also said you never know what kind of morning it’s been for the children.
“I made it a point to greet each child and call them by name morning and afternoon and to treat them the way I would want my own kids treated,” Patsy said. “Me and my bus kids, we had a great relationship.”
By Toni W. Riley