POWERS, Mich. (WJMN) – “When I graduated, the first year out of school I went to work at a machine shop at night,” said Robert Hanchek. “Helped my dad in the daytime. We had 30 – 40 cows in them days. My neighbor was right in town here, he called me up and said, ‘Want to come work with me at night?’ So I did. Well then we worked there, three, four months and Car Guard which was their big order maker burned down in Marinette, so we got laid off in February. Well, they called us back in the spring but we were busy in the field and we never went back. That fall, in September, a neighbor of mine called and said, ‘Bob, we need a bus driver down here.’ Well, sounded good so I went down there. To this day, I don’t even know if I had an interview. I was just hired on the spot and I started driving October 15, 1972 for two weeks for another driver, subbed, and then on November 1, 1972 I had my own route and been there ever since.”
Every school day for all these years, Hanchek has been seen taking children to and from North Central Area Schools, a tight knit community.
“What’s nice is to see, you get a little kindergartener and they’ve never been on a bus before and they know the rules of the bus… kind of,” said Hanchek. “But, they like to get up and walk away and you tell them to come back and sit down. The next year, and the years after as they get bigger, they become young adults and they know the rules. One nice thing with knowing everybody over the years, little Johnny or Mary, they come out of school at night with a note, ‘I gotta go to Grandma’s house.’ No name of the grandma, but I know the grandma. I know where they gotta go. I have places where I know if the car is not outside, I call mom, ‘Where are you?’, ‘I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.’ So I just wait until mom gets there and I let them off. It’s the personal touch that we give when you’re local.”
With being responsible for so many children in this role, he takes safety seriously and recalls a time when lives were on the line.
“It was the first day back to school in 2004,” said Hanchek. “January 4th. It was a cloudy night. Probably about 10 to four central time and I pulled out of Kell Road, right up the road here. When I pulled on the highway my next stop was a quarter mile down the road. Little Mahoney boys. One was I think second grade, Joey and Trevor might have been kindergarten. When I pulled out of Kell Road, I looked in my mirror which, a bus driver, I’m always looking in my mirrors. All the time. I’d seen a truck behind me way in the distance and I couldn’t make out what it was, but as it got closer I pulled off the highway, had my lights on and I kept looking in the mirror and I said to myself, ‘That truck is not going to stop.’ He was about 100 feet behind me and he’s still coming at 50 to 60 miles per hour. The boys were in the stairwell already and I grabbed them, pulled them back and shut the door. I had a standard transmission in them days, threw it into second and pulled on the shoulder and just as I got on the shoulder the truck went by sliding. He woke up, he was daydreaming. Low and behold, a sheriff patrol car was right behind that truck. He already had radioed for an ambulance because he thought the truck was going to hit the bus. I got out of the way quick enough. There was about, I would say eight or 10 kids, all of my neighbors close to the farm that were on the back of the bus. In the back end of the bus that probably would have been killed because a school bus is a tin can, a big tin can. It’s the safest way to transport pupils but when you get hit by a tandem boom truck, it wouldn’t have stand a chance.”
Hanchek says he thinks about that night all the time.
“All the time especially when I go by the place,” said Hanchek. “The place is right up by the plant where that happened. I think about that all the time. And the little guys, their step-grandpa thanked me numerous times for doing that. For saving them. I don’t know, they were just about to get off the bus, but he could have hit the bus and pushed it onto the kids. The could have been killed too. It’s a coulda, shoulda, don’t know.”
He’s thankful for not knowing any other outcome than what happened. Hanchek says being a bus driver, training is very regular and there are words he once heard during a course that will always stick with him.
“He says, ‘As the kids get off the bus, I count them. When they’re on the driveway, I count them again to make sure I got the same number,’ said Hanchek. “That stuck in my mind and I still do that to this day. I count them. Three get off, I want three over there. One gets off, I want to see them.”
Hanchek has received awards for his act of heroism including American Legion’s ‘Hero of the Year’ at both the state and local level. Recently, Bob was recognized for 50 years of bus driving with a proclamation signed by Governor Whitmer and Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist. He’s the longest standing bus driver in the state, but his days in the role are coming to an end. He plans on retiring soon and voices what he’ll miss the most.
“All the kids,” said Hancheck. “And I drive a lot of ball games in the fall and winter. I especially like to watch basketball. So I would do a lot of driving. Some of the girls at school, when it was snowy and icy, ‘Bob, you can take that trip tonight.’ They didn’t care to. Which I just took my time. Take them to ballgames, stop at McDonald’s or wherever they would eat. They all like that. I know one time, I took the girls basketball team to Crystal Falls and when we came out to go home, there was two inches of fresh snow on the road and from Crystal Falls to home is 65 miles. Four times I had to stop and clean the windshield wipers off. When I got back to the school, the girls told me, ‘Thanks Bob for getting us home safe.’ That’s what really hits the heart is when they appreciate it but that’s what a bus driver does. Get them there and get them home safe.”