Steamboat Springs After nearly 20 years behind the wheel, shuttling Routt County students to and from school, Steamboat Springs School District bus driver Clair Erickson is turning in his keys.
But Erickson won’t say he’s leaving a school bus and retiring as a district employee.
That’s because a school bus has meant so much more to Erickson than a mode of mass transportation to make sure kids are at school on time and home at a decent hour afterward.
“To me, it's a big, yellow classroom,” Erickson said Sunday from the district’s bus barn near 13th Street, just hours after shuttling spectators to and from Hahn’s Peak for the Steamboat Marathon.
He insists students — from kindergartners to high school seniors — call him Mr. E. The idea is to build respect and create a foundation of formality early in kids’ lives.
And as a nearly two-decade school bus driver, Erickson has seen just about everything. The older students tend to be more mellow, he said, putting in earphones and zoning out on their way to school. Getting the youngsters to sit still even for a second is a bit more challenging.
But even though a day of transportation sometimes comes with a headache after a delivery full of wired students, Erickson has stayed in the business simply for the joy of being around kids.
The pay hasn’t been bad, he said, but the biggest reward of all is watching students grow from their first bus stop in kindergarten to their last day of high school.
“I look at it as, man, they’re paying me a lot of money to just go have fun working with the kids,” Erickson said. “That’s what I enjoy, being with the kids.”
He first got behind the school bus wheel when he was a student himself in Idaho. Approached by the district superintendent at age 18, Erickson became among a small group of farm-working kids skilled enough to help the school by driving the bus.
Erickson went on to study finance in college, also in Idaho. When he graduated with a degree in hand, he and a friend decided to make a cross-country road trip, just “to see what was out there,” he said.
When passing through Colorado, a relative in Denver talked him into sticking around for a while. He did, and for three years, he served as an accountant for a mutual fund, then worked as a mortgage banker for another six years.
That’s when an opportunity came up in real estate lending in Steamboat Springs in 1974. He worked various jobs in the area, working for Routt County National Bank (where Wells Fargo is now), selling insurance and even owning a screen-printing shop for a decade.
While running the shop, he took on an added role as a part-time school bus driver for Steamboat Springs School District, serving as a substitute and activity transporter for half a decade.
“The director then came to me and says, ‘You’re going to drive a regular route,’” Erickson recalled. “And I says, ‘No way, I don’t want a route.’”
When the district transportation director offered him insurance as an added perk, Erickson’s mind changed quickly.
Nineteen years later, he’s still behind the wheel, but his last official day will be June 11.
At 72, Erickson’s memory is as sharp as ever. He remembers the days of driving the high school girls soccer team to its state championship run in Denver in 1998, and he made a bet that if the Sailors won it all, they could trash the bus and not have to clean it up.
“I mean, we had balloons, the windows were painted, there was trash everywhere,” Erickson said with a laugh. "They thought it was great fun.”
Or the time former boys basketball coach Kelly Meek’s squad made a deep state playoff run, aided by the superstitious routine of Erickson letting the squad exit out of the rear emergency doors. Anything to keep the playoffs alive, right?
“I was actually talking to the principal the other day, and I says, ‘The only time they win a state championship is when they ride the yellow bus,’” Erickson joked.
He isn’t retiring completely, though. Erickson already has taken a job shuttling cars at a dealership in town.
The long trips and daily routes soon may be a thing of the past, and surely there won’t be dozens of kids screaming in Erickson’s ears five days each week.
But he will continue his 4 a.m. wakeup call, and most of all, he never will forget his big, yellow classroom days.
“I’ll miss the kids most, because they’re fun, funny, aggravating. You name it, they are,” Erickson chuckled.
To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll