By Curt Yeomans
Jeannette Drennan still remembers the first bus she drove for Clayton County Public Schools, way back in 1965.
The bus' number was 19. It was a " '59 Ford and you couldn't turn it in a 10-acre field," and it had seating for 66 students.
"It took everything you had," said Drennan, to get the bus to turn because "it had no power steering, no power brakes, and it was a [five-speed] manual transmission."
"But old bus No. 19, he could go," she said.
This year marks Drennan's 45th as a school bus driver, all of which have been for Clayton County Schools. For the last 22 years, she has been driving special-needs children. These days, however, she drives a Freightliner mini-bus, No. 06-227.
Drennan's tenure makes her the school system's longest-serving, active school bus driver, said Rella Smith, the manager of special-needs transportation.
Drennan, 65, a lifelong resident of Riverdale, said she began driving a bus in February 1965, as a substitute driver. In September of that year, she said, she got her own route. At the time, she had been looking for a job that allowed her to also be there for her two young children when she needed to be. Her father-in-law urged her to join the ranks of bus drivers.
"My father-in law said, 'Why don't you become a bus driver? I need me a sub when I want one,'" Drennan recalled. "So I did, but I didn't get to sub for him much. I took my children to school, and brought them home ... It was a good part-time job for a mother who's got children in school."
Drennan comes from a family of school bus drivers. Her grandfather, Johnny J. Scott, was a driver from the 1950s to 1963. She said about a dozen of her relatives, and in-laws, have driven school buses over the years.
Among those relatives is her cousin, Barbara Johnson, who also drives a bus for special-needs children in Clayton. "It's just been a family thing," Johnson said. "We call it tradition."
Johnson, who is in her 43rd year as a driver, was trained by Drennan. "She was a good trainer," Johnson said. "The thing about Jeannette and I, is that we lived on dump trucks and tractors, because we grew up on farms. We knew about this sort of stuff."
Drennan said the children she transports daily are the main reason she has remained in her profession. "I really enjoy special needs, because whatever you do for them, they are appreciative of it," the veteran driver said.
Drennan also said she has seen several changes in the bus-driving profession during her decades of work, most notably, a switch to buses with automatic transmissions.
"We got better buses as the years went by," she said. "We thought we'd died and gone to heaven when we got an automatic [in the late 1970s]."
When she first started driving school buses, Drennan wore a pair of her husband's long johns, which she altered by cutting off the left leg, to keep warm during the winter months. "The left leg was against the heater, so it roasted, while this one [the right leg] froze," she said.
She said one memory that stands out over the years is driving her school bus on the beach at Jekyll Island in the early 1990s. It was during a trip with a group of students with disabilities from Mt. Zion High School to a vocational camp on the island.
One of the events was a fish fry on the beach. There were three students, including one from Mt. Zion, who were confined to wheelchairs. "They couldn't get to the beach because of the dunes, and two of them were electric chairs, and you can't just pick up electric chairs and move them," Drennan said.
So, the veteran driver got permission from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to drive the students across the beach to the fish fry. "I got stuck coming back, because the tide had come in, and I've got pictures of us up there trying to dig the bus out," she said. "They finally got a bigger truck out there, and rigged us up to it, and pulled us out."
As Drennan went to buckle in one of two students she drove home from Jackson Elementary School on Monday, the youth began to clap his hands. Drennan momentarily stopped buckling the young boy into his seat to clap with him, causing him to let out a little giggle.
Drennan said she's not sure how many more years she will drive a school bus, but she anticipates staying with the district, at least, until she reaches her 50th year as a driver. "If I didn't do this, I wouldn't have much to do during the day," she said. "I'm going to go until it's not safe for me drive these kids anymore ... So far, I still have most of my functions."