Over his 50 years of driving a school bus in North Central Area Schools in the western Upper Peninsula, MEA member Bob Hanchek says one day clearly stands out from all the rest.
On Jan. 4, 2004, Hanchek made a stop on his afternoon route along U.S. 41. With red lights flashing and two of his 15 young occupants – the first- and second-grade Mahoney boys – coming up the aisle to exit, he recognized a big and fast-moving railroad repair truck was not stopping.
“I grabbed them boys out of the stairwell, shut the door, and threw the bus in gear,” he said. “It was a standard shift – a stick – and I moved the bus onto the shoulder. Faster than you can snap your fingers [the truck driver] went sliding 50 feet behind the bus. He woke up – he was daydreaming – and slammed on the brakes, and he slid right by me.”
For his life-saving actions that day Hanchek was honored by his district and named the Michigan Hero of the Year by the American Legion. More recently he shared the story in an acceptance speech after receiving MEA’s top honor for education support professionals, the 2022 Leon A. Brunner Award.
“I’ll never forget that day,” he said of the near-accident. “You get used to watching your mirrors on the bus, and over the years the traffic has gotten more heavy. There’s so much of a hurry to get where they’re going, and when they get there they don’t know why they got there so fast.”
A lifelong dairy farmer on what is now a 1,000-acre family farm he runs with his two sons, Hanchek began driving a bus in 1972 at age 19 – just one year after graduation – and retires this year at age 69. Speaking with a rich Yooper accent in which “other” becomes “udder,” he said when he started driving “every other farmer drove a bus” for some extra income and health benefits.
When he heard the driver who once took him to school was retiring, he earned his license and took over the route he would keep for half a century: “On November first, I rode with that fellow to his house; he got off the bus, walked up the road, I jumped in the seat, and I’ve been going ever since.”
Hanchek figures he’s driven three generations of families in the sprawling rural region he knows by heart – every hole in the road, every trick to find a shortcut, every child and parent and grandparent. He knows phone numbers and would call on his flip phone instead of leaving a child at an empty house.
“And probably three-quarters of parents have my cell number, and they called me, ‘Hey Bob – can you bring him over to Grandma’s house?’ I know every grandma. Or ‘Could you take him to my cousin or my sister or brother today?’ No problem, because I know where everybody lives.”
He’s driven through numerous blizzards, but that doesn’t top his list of fears. “I’ll drive in a foot of snow all day long, but ice is scary,” he said.
In addition to farming and driving, Hanchek has been a seed dealer since 1974 and served as the elected township clerk in Harris Township for 28 years. In planting season, his day often stretched from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. “When you’ve been busy all your life, how do you slow down?” he says.
More than 20 years ago, he became president of his local support staff union, eventually joining the MEA and MESSA boards of directors and becoming a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly.
He’s fought against school budget slashing that cut health care and retirement benefits, leading to widespread shortages of bus drivers and consolidation of routes. “Who wants that responsibility with no benefits and some buses trying to run two routes and fit it all in? I have your children on that bus.”
It’s been a great career, he says. He’ll miss the kids, but he’s ready to take his new Harley trike down south with fiance and fellow MEA-Retired member Michele Davis, also a former bus driver, and return in March for planting season.
“Everybody always says and I’ve been saying for years, ‘When is when?’ And now I know it’s time to go at 50 years. That’s long enough.”