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A driving force for three decades

KINGSTON — There is but one constant in Barb Fulton’s life as a North Kitsap school bus driver: her bright yellow Blue Bird.

The seasons change, the kids grow up — even the kids of the kids grow up — and the town in which she was raised gets bigger.

But along she chugs in her diesel powered, nine-ton bus, every morning and every afternoon of the school year. On and off hop students, from the highly energetic Gordon Elementary kids to the more reserved, quiet North Kitsap High School teens.

Despite the changes around her, Fulton feels the diesel hit the crisp morning air in Kingston when she cranks over her engine at the crack of dawn, just as she did 28 years ago, when she started as a driver in North Kitsap.

“The kids keep me young,” she said. “I don’t feel like I get any older. But when I look in the mirror, I am.”

In that time, she’s raised two children as a single mother and married a fellow district driver, all while watching hundreds of children grow up, leave Gordon Elementary to go to junior high school, then come back to her on the high school route. For three years, her former students ride on another driver’s bus, Bob Dixon’s, before returning, often very different people due to the affects of puberty.

“It seems like it was just yesterday,” she recalled of the annual experience. “I don’t know where the time goes by.”

Fulton connects with each of her riders in a unique way, as she, too, grew up along the routes she now drives. Her family has always been close with the community at large, having moved here in 1953. She was even the very first Miss Kingston back in 1965.

“I feel blessed to be from here,” Fulton said. “I just love it here.”

Fulton’s mother, Vi Weaver, still operates the Kingston Food Bank. For years, her father Ray Weaver, was in the Navy and became an ambulance driver and the Kingston barber when they moved to Kitsap.

“He’d have half a haircut done when he’d get an (ambulance) call,” she remembered of her father. “When he’d get back, they’d still be in the chair, ready for him to finish the job.”

That small town mentality extended to the bus routes. Fulton said that one small bus served the Hansville, Eglon and Little Boston communities when she grew up. Now, there are five that serve those areas.

Still, she said Kingston has maintained the small-town feel it always has, and she hopes it always will.

“I like that it hasn’t changed a lot,” Fulton said. “I’ve seen a lot of changes but I’m pleased they’ve been small.”

With nearly three decades gone by, her coworkers do prod her longevity, Fulton commented.

“They tease me that when I first got here, if I needed a mechanic, they’d call for a horse and buggy,” she said.

Up at 5 a.m. — though she admitted that she despises getting out of bed early — Fulton gets to the Kingston “Bus barn,” officially known as the district’s transportation and maintenance facility, by 6 a.m.

Before Fulton’s bus, as well as all the others, can go out on their runs, they must go through a “pre-trip” checklist. Hoses, oil, water, belts and all lights are only a few of the things reviewed before the drivers get underway. And should anything fail before or during a run, the district’s mechanics are ready to bring on another bus at a moment’s notice.

“We have the best mechanics,” she said. “They’re the greatest. They get everything done on the spot.”

Just before heading out on her morning high school route last Wednesday, Fulton was joined by two other long-time drivers and friends: Candy Boyd, a 20 year driver of the No. 56, which services Poulsbo Junior High School, NKHS and Wolfle and Breidablik Elementaries, and Cori Johnson, a driver for eight years on the No. 56, which is routed to Kingston Junior High School and Wolfle. It is a time to shoot the breeze, discussing their kids and things they’re looking forward to in the summer.

Fulton’s Route, No. 66 — also displayed by a sticker on her bus window depicting the famous U.S. highway — rumbles to a start just after 6:30 a.m.

She said she often concentrates most on the youngest of children, many of whom are somewhat oblivious of their surroundings when they’re loading the bus.

“Oh, it’s every driver’s worst fear,” she said. “The smaller kids, they think they’re invincible.”

In part, that fear helps bus drivers around the country keep their buses, just as Fulton does: as safe as they can be. Though bus accidents receive much media attention, it is likely because they are so rare: yellow school buses are safer to ride than any other passenger vehicle, train, even safer than airplanes, according to the national School Bus Informational Council.

That doesn’t mean Fulton hasn’t face some particularly harrowing situations. Some of her worst came during her 16-year stint as ski bus driver to Steven’s Pass.

A few times she’s had to keep control of a skidding bus down an icy mountain. Without fail, chains are always necessary — and chaining up a bus in the snow is always a challenge, she said — the route takes as much concentration and energy as any she’s done.

“You definitely earn your money’s worth on that route,” she explained.

Still, whether she’s driving to the mountain or along her regular route, she said she loves watching the world go by. It’s one of her favorite aspects of her job, a primary reason she’s kept doing it so long.

“I’ve never wanted to work in an office,” she said. “I love this job. There’s not many people that can brag that they work outside.”

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Part II of this series, focusing on the many stories and faces she’s met on the route in her career, will appear in the May 21 edition of the Herald.

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