As the doors swing open, a procession of students climb aboard a bus departing Fultondale (Ala.) Elementary School. Before taking his seat, one of the youngsters gives driver Sarah Grigsby a handmade paper card with the words “I Love You” scrawled above a big red heart.
“Thank you, sweetie,” says Grigsby, 71, leaning forward in her seat to hug the little boy. The card is a small token of appreciation from one of the thousands of students that the cheerful grandmother has welcomed onto her bus during the last 52 years.
“It’s not just a job for her,” says Principal Cynde Cornelius. “She really loves the kids.”
For Grigsby, who’s logged almost a million miles behind the wheel, driving a school bus is a family tradition. “In 1925, my daddy contracted with Jefferson County (Ala.) for $100 a month to provide the very first bus and driver to take kids from Glenwood to Mortimer-Jordan School,” she says. “My brother J.P. was the next one to drive a bus. And then, when I started first grade, my mama started driving one, too.”
When Sarah was in high school, she met and married Huston Grigsby, who began driving a school bus in the 11th grade. Sarah’s own driving career began one January morning in 1956 when Huston awoke with a fever and she phoned the school superintendent to report that her husband couldn’t drive his route.
“The superintendent said to me, ‘Ever driven a pickup?’ I told him, ‘Once, for about five miles.’ ‘Then you go drive Huston’s route,’ he said. I’ve been driving ever since,” Sarah says.
Much has changed since the 1950s, including a state regulation that now requires Grigsby to be recertified as a bus driver each year. “The buses used to have no heat or air conditioning,” she recalls. “The wipers ran off a vacuum, so when you drove uphill, they didn’t work. I had to use a hand-operated lever to keep the window clear.”
Through the years, she’s had a few close calls behind the wheel. “One morning I had 119 kids on board and my rear axle broke as we were crossing a railroad track,” she says. “We could hear the train coming. Some of the big boys jumped out and pushed us clear just in time.”
Today, Grigsby starts her route in the early morning hours, driving 100 miles every weekday as she shuttles elementary and high school students around Jefferson County.
“I let the last one out about 3:40 p.m., and then I’m home for the day, unless there’s a game—I drive the ball teams,” she says. “I love what I do, but it’s not for everybody.”
Still, Grigsby wouldn’t have it any other way. The joy of driving a school bus has spread throughout her family. All of her children—Lonnie, Jonathan, Sharon and Patricia—have driven school buses, along with her brother Ray, her nephew Tim, and nieces Rita and Diane. “At one time I had nine buses parking at my house,” she says with a grin.
Her warm demeanor and familiar face have left a mark on generations of Jefferson County residents. “I had my grandchildren on the playground at McDonald’s a while back and saw some children who ride my bus,” she says. “When their grandmother spotted me, she just lit up, calling out, ‘I know you! I used to ride your bus!’ I know whole families, and they’re all so special to me.”
Fultondale Councilman Darrell Hubbert rode Grigsby’s bus from first through 12th grade, as did his children Chaney and Katie. He even waited for Grigsby’s bus with his granddaughter Zoe last year on her first day of elementary school. “I think it’s wonderful,” says Hubbert of sharing a common link with his granddaughter. “I have so much respect for Mrs. Grigsby. She’s a great lady.”
Grigsby hopes to keep driving as long as she’s able, carrying on a tradition that would make her late husband proud. “Huston always said he wanted to drive a bus for 50 years,” she says. “He’d made it 46 and a half before he passed away. So I’ve done it for him.”