Some families share more than just genetics. Some pass down their passion for a local sports team or a holiday tradition. For others, the love of the American school bus has lasted through the Great Depression, World War II and a number of changes in the way the industry operates.
100 Years in the Making
In 1908, Emerson Fullington invested in a nine-passenger, horse-drawn wagon to take residents of the central Pennsylvania town of Clearfield to the local train station. Now, 100 years later, the fourth generation of Fullingtons is still heading the company with a vision for the future and memories from the past.
“I remember taking my Hopalong Cassidy lunch box and going with my dad to the garage every day,” said Aerial Fullington-Weisman, the founder’s great-granddaughter and the company’s president and CEO. “He would fix the buses, and he taught me about tools. I would take naps in the school buses and ride along with him during the school bus runs.”
Seeing a need for exclusive transportation for students, Fullington Auto Bus Company began providing school bus transportation in 1936 by obtaining the contracts in the two local school districts. Students rode for a dime.
The family and its stories are deeply steeped in transportation. During World War II, the company carried troops to the train station and even brought them home. According to Mike Fullington, Aerial’s brother and the company’s vice president and chief operating officer, the mechanics and drivers worked around the clock and slept in the buses to keep the troops moving.
The siblings’ grandfather, John Richard “Dick” Fullington, Sr., was born after his mother was rushed to the hospital in one of the town buses when no other vehicle was available. He would become the longest-standing president of the company, serving in the position for five decades with his wife Tillie as vice-president.
“Today’s children are our country’s most valuable natural resource and the foundation of our future, and we are privileged to provide daily transportation to the students in five neighboring school districts,” said Aerial.
A One-Man Fleet
J.D. Porter took up his first school bus route in 1927 as a way to make ends meet. A rancher in Tyrone, N.M., the eldest Porter drove students to school in a half-ton Chevy truck with a wooden frame and wooden benches that ran down the sides and the middle of the bed. For the next 25 years, J.D. kept his business rolling on only two buses.
“In 1953, the school districts were consolidated and he was awarded the contracts for Cobre Consolidated Schools for a total of 10 routes,” said Brett Kasten, the present-day owner of what is now known as Porter Transportation. “Also in 1953, my grandfather took on a partner, his son Robert.”
The Porter family soon needed more buses to handle the new routes and by 1972 had expanded its fleet to 22 buses. A few years later, Robert Porter passed away and Brett’s father, Bob Kasten, took over after retiring from a 25-year teaching career. For close to a decade, Bob oversaw the company’s day-to-day business, until 1988, when he was stricken by a debilitating type of arthritis and asked Brett to come home and take over the company.
“I had never contemplated running the family business,” said Brett. “Until that time, the only real duties I ever had in the business were washing buses and busting down tires in high school. By 1994, my wife, Greta Jo, was teaching first grade, and I was buying out my Mom and Dad.”
And although the business has scaled back over the last few decades, it does not take away from the 80-year history of Porter Transportation. With his eight-year-old son Trent and 11-year-old daughter Zoe Jo already talking about taking over the business some day, the company still has room to grow.
“Both of my kids have washed buses on the weekends, but they are too young to get much more involved than that. I am trying to instill a good work ethic in them; they will need it no matter what happens in their lives,” added Brett.
A Little Help from his Friends and Family
Andrew G. Anderson — also known as “Bus Andy” and one of the originators of the Greyhound Bus Line — had a little something to do with the Fey family’s beginnings in school transportation. While working as a Mack truck and bus salesman, Ray Fey, Sr. made a lot of friends in the transportation industry. When the chance came to buy Eau Claire Transportation Company, based in Eau Claire, Wis., his friend Bus Andy, along with his son, Fred Fey, bought the business from Northern States Power in 1939.
“The public service commission said that, since they were not longer running street cars, which required electricity, power companies had to get out of the bus business. Since my grandfather had the inside track on it, he had the first opportunity to purchase the company,” said Phil Frey, the founder’s son and current president of Student Transit, which changed its name from Eau Claire in 1975 when the company sold the city buses back to the City of Eau Claire and focused strictly on school bus transportation at the request of the local board of education.
“We used city buses that weren’t even painted yellow at the time. At first, the board would buy tokens for the students. Then we started running specials and trippers, where we picked up students exclusively,” said Phil, who started working for his dad full-time in 1966 as a city bus driver.
For a little extra cash, Phil would sell advertising space on the buses. He soon moved on to training school bus drivers, and by the late 1960s, Phil was promoted to management. By 1975, the federal government appropriated funds for public transit, and the city of Eau Claire bought all of the company’s city buses. Since then, Student Transit has been running strictly yellow buses.
Although Ray Sr. is still alive, he was bought out by Phil’s sons Ray and Jim, who now run the day-to-day business for the family. Ray, the “hands-on guy,” trains the drivers and administers the CDL tests, while Jim deals with the board of education and is known in the office as the “computer guy.”
“My two boys are doing a great job. I believe we can stay at it for as long as my family wants to. We’ve learned a lot over the years, and we have been blessed as far as safety goes,” added Phil.
Eyeing the Century Mark
Over the last 21 years, Mike Cyr has tried to follow the example set by his father, Joseph Harvey Cyr.
“My father is very active and in charge,” said Mike, who sits in the general manager’s seat at John T. Cyr and Sons’ offices in Old Town, Maine, which although shares the same last name of the father of the yellow school bus, Frank Cyr, there is no relation. “School buses are my family’s life, plain and simple.”
The company lists its year of origin as 1912, when Joseph T. Cyr and his father John (Mike’s great uncle and great-grandfather, respectively) left their jobs to start a freight-livery business. But it was Joseph who applied and was granted a trucking license by the city council. Ten years later, the all-horse-drawn company purchased its first motor vehicle and were even offering taxi services. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, John T. Cyr and Sons began transporting students for the City of Old Town, charging $20 a week for the service.
Mike’s father, Joseph Harvey Cyr, came into the business after his father, Harvey Cyr, bought out the rest of the family. Joe started as a mechanic and bookkeeper in 1962, but took over as president when his father died five years later. At the time, the company has 15 employees and 10 buses, and Joe was ready to expand the business and fleet. Undeterred by a fire that destroyed one of his school buses and a garage in 1970, Joe was able to quadruple the fleet by 1980 with the company’s school and charter service leading the way.
“The success of our school bus operation had enabled us expand into other areas,” said Mike.
And with a total of 220 school buses, Mike’s eight-year-old son John T. Cyr II will have his hands full when he takes over.
“We plan to be in business for a very long time,” said Mike.
Reprinted from the July 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.