Paris Ridge Elementary School second-graders considered words to describe Dave Smith, or “Mr. Dave,” the man who drives them to and from school.
“Nice!” “He’s awesome!” “Funny,” “Joyful!” “Caring!” “Smart!”
“He’s very patient and encouraging,” added Nichole Merlin, second-grade teacher. “He keeps command with cool and calm, which is hard to do.”
Smith, 64, of Middleville, has worked as a district school bus driver since 2002. He started the job after 25 years working in finance when he accepted an incentive package to leave Steelcase. On his way home after his final day there, he stopped at Caledonia Public Schools and asked about bus driver positions.
Smith was hired as a substitute driver, and after a year and half he took on a permanent route. Now he welcomes students from Caledonia High School, Kraft and Duncan Lake Middle School, and Caledonia, Emmons Lake, Paris Ridge and Dutton elementary schools onto the bus each morning. He knows all 150 of his students by name, and he’s taken time to get to know their families at stop after stop in the 100 square-mile district.
“Bye, Emma, Bye Aiden,” he recently said to a pair of them as they exited his bus, prompting smiles and waves.
“I always considered the bus as an extension of the classroom,” he said. “The bus driver is the first person kids see every day after they leave home.”
More than Just the Driver
As he makes his way along the route, Smith is always listening to what’s going on in the seats behind him. “Certainly, kids on the bus act differently than they would in front of their parents.” Safety comes first, he said, and he balances kindness with authority.
“It makes a big difference just learning their names,” Smith said. “You kind of learn how to get respect from the kids. If you take an interest in them, once you earn that respect, they’re pretty good.”
Brittany Slone, whose son, Jayden, is going into seventh-grade at Kraft Meadow Middle School, said she is glad Smith is in her son’s life.
“Dave is amazing with everyone of the kids on his routes,” Slone said. “He is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. The kids absolutely love him because he takes the time to get to know each child individually that rides his bus. He talks with them about what they enjoy, their hobbies. The kids love that about him. They love the fact that he actually cares about them and they aren’t just a face to him.”
Indeed, his students have different situations going on in their families, Smith said, and understanding that helps him get to know them. “I’ve understood all my life the impact you can have on people’s lives if you do a little more than say, ‘hi’ and ‘bye.'”
“He’s very even tempered,” said fellow bus driver Kelly Dutcher. “He goes above and beyond. And he finds things for kids to do on the bus and keeps them occupied and entertained.”
It also means the world to students to see him make an appearance off the bus.
“These are like all my grandkids,” he said. “A lot of the times they say, ‘Mr. Dave, can you go to my baseball game?… I try to do some of that.”
Parents have noticed his attendance at sporting events.
“The kids just light up when they see him in the crowd,” Slone said. “Taking time out of his personal life to show these kids support really shows his true character and how much he really loves these kids.”
Between his morning and afternoon routes, Smith works in insurance and retirement planning, but he still enjoys beginning and ending his day on the bus, greeting and saying goodbye to the children he shuttles.
“It’s certainly rewarding,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing it 12 years later.”