Unlike most people, Rick Ford of Menomonie doesn’t mind driving in wintry Wisconsin weather.
Also unlike most people, Ford doesn’t mind driving through the snow in a 35-foot school bus.
He’s had plenty of practice. Ford, 71, has been driving school buses for family-owned Menomonie Transportation for 50 years, since he was 21.
Menomonie Transportation buses Menomonie school district students.
“He’s an outstanding employee,” said Tom Krueger, Menomonie Transportation route director. “Always faithful, punctual and professional.”
Winter weather hasn’t always played nice throughout Ford’s career. In the early 1990s, he remembers driving a school bus on an afternoon route and getting stuck on an icy road.
Ford and a bus full of students sat in the bus from 3 to 9 p.m. that day, waiting for sand trucks to come to their rescue, he said: “Parents ended up coming in snowmobiles out to the bus.”
Ford’s first encounter with the company came when he was in seventh grade. Menomonie Transportation co-founder Maurice Howe was Ford’s own bus driver, he said.
In high school, Ford, a Knapp native, started working with Sanna Dairies products at a Menomonie plant. At 21, he took a second job: driving part-time with Menomonie Transportation.
He retired from the plant, now ConAgra Foods, in 2010, after 43 years. For all 43 of those years he also drove buses part-time.
Did he expect to still be driving 50 years later? “Not really.”
In 1970, instead of a computer-generated list of students and parents, Ford would sit at Maurice and Eileen Howe’s kitchen table, writing down the names of kids, parents and their phone numbers on a pad of paper.
Ford would often drive a school bus to work the night shift at the ConAgra plant, then drive straight to a morning bus route.
“One night I got stopped for stealing the bus,” Ford remembered.
When a police officer asked Ford if he had stolen the vehicle, he couldn’t resist having a little fun.
“I said, ‘Yeah, but I left my car back there for (Maurice) Howe to drive around,” Ford said, laughing.
These days Ford drives routes in the town of Lucas and River Heights Elementary areas, between 25 and 30 hours per week.
Often on his bus, he’ll see the children and grandchildren of students he used to drive.
“Kindergarten (students) can’t believe that their dad or mother would ride with me,” Ford said. “That’s pretty funny.”
Though the job hasn’t drastically changed in 50 years, Ford said, Menomonie has grown larger and some streets have been renamed. Several students he used to pick up and drop off each day are now in college and driving for Menomonie Transportation themselves.
“Right now there’s probably six of them I had on the bus that are driving in, filling in routes,” Ford said.
Krueger, who has worked at the company since 1998, praised Ford and the company for creating a supportive environment that encourages drivers to stay.
“In the past 20 years I’ve been very privileged to work with Rick Ford, and I’m very honored that he’s served our district in such a professional and caring capacity,” Krueger said.
Ford has the same recognition on his buses. Because so many Menomonie students know him well, he doesn’t have problems keeping them in order on the bus.
“They test every driver,” Ford said. “You’ve got to treat them all the same, have to be fair and firm.”
Ford doesn’t have plans to retire soon.
“I’m not even sure,” he said. “Yesterday I said, (the company’s) 75th anniversary will be in 2021. We’ll see what happens after that.”