Lake Country Faces: Tom Bristow of Pine River transports precious cargo
Former school district transportation director has pride in watching students become adults
PINE RIVER — While it's not unheard of for retired individuals to rejoin the workforce to help pass their time, Tom Bristow did something most people don't.
He returned to work under his replacement, back to square one.
Bristow worked for the Pine River-Backus School District for nearly 20 years before retiring in 2020. He didn't stay away long.
He signed on as a mechanic in the fall of the next school year and then threw his hat in the ring as a substitute bus driver for the district under his successor, Transportation Director Charity Crannell.
"I like being here," Bristow said. "Pine River-Backus School District has been a great place to work. I've been treated well and I've met a lot of people I respect doing jobs from superintendent on down."
Taking on substitute driving was like a blast from the past. After nearly 20 years, Bristow was back to where he started with the district.
Bristow was born and raised on a farm about three miles outside of Pine River. Like many farm boys, Bristow learned his way around a wrench between chores. If it could be fixed, he was expected to fix it, and that eventually set him up for a future fixing buses.
"Dad never took anything to a shop," Bristow said. "If it went to a shop, it was a major repair. He was always able to pull things in, fix them, take them back out — and he expected that from us as kids. If we were going to drive a car or motorcycle, snowmobile, whatever it was, if it broke, we fixed it."
When he was a teen, Bristow took up work at a local auto body repair shop. He did good work, but eventually decided he wanted to follow his father's footsteps and get into farming.
Once again, he persisted in his work for years before he decided to find something on the side to supplement his income. It turns out that was as a substitute bus driver.
"Prior to being a mechanic or transportation director, I got my license and started as a substitute driver here," Bristow said. "That kind of piqued my interest a bit, and the job for mechanic came up and I was encouraged to apply."
True appreciation for the job didn't come all at once.
"I was pretty hesitant," Bristow said, "a little apprehensive about the whole thing. But as we moved forward and I got into it, I found out it was really a rewarding job. You get to meet a lot of neat kids."
Feb. 22 is the seventh annual National Bus Driver Appreciation Day in Minnesota, and there's no better time to recognize the work that Bristow and other drivers do to ensure they provide a safe ride for important passengers for one of the most important purposes: education.
Like any other bus driver, Bristow worked for years transporting kids and for all that time, he got to interact with the students twice a day, every day. Seeing children grow into themselves, Bristow was fond of his experiences driving bus.
"We have some great kids out there," Bristow said. "We have great families and great kids and you run into many who are so appreciative of the driver. They get on the bus and say, 'Good morning,' and they get off the bus and say, 'Thank you,' and you don't expect that. It is nice to hear."
As with all bus drivers, Bristow had to work to earn the trust of the district and parents before he could transport children to and from school. First, bus drivers are required to hold a commercial drivers license with a school bus endorsement. Beyond that, the entire garage has extra training, meetings and testing to show they are skilled and responsible enough for the job.
That is a lot of responsibility.
I'm driving someone else's kid to school or home, and I need to be mindful of that while driving. This is precious cargo.
"You're picking up someone else's kids," Bristow said. "That weighs ... I don't want to use the word 'heavy,' but it's definitely on my mind when I get on that bus. I'm driving someone else's kid to school or home, and I need to be mindful of that while driving. This is precious cargo. It lays a certain amount of responsibility on the driver and it's just something you have to be prepared for. But it's very rewarding when you do the job."
In the past, additional training has involved something called a "bus rodeo" at the school, where drivers practice pre-trip inspections, maneuvers, obstacle avoidance and challenging backing up and parking drills. The program has been on hold the last couple years, but there are talks of setting up another event in the near future.
"It gives the director a chance to see what areas drivers could use some advice or help on to refine their skills," Bristow said.
Things have changed a lot in Bristow's years with the school. The driver holds a lot of responsibility, and none comes before the safety of the occupants of the bus. As a result, in the past it may have been difficult to respond to behavioral issues on the bus accordingly without becoming distracted from that first priority, but now drivers have backup.
"We have cameras on everything and we monitor them and they work quite well," Bristow said. "Charity has done an excellent job monitoring them and using them. It has helped when they realize they have three more eyes on the bus keeping an eye on what they're doing because it's difficult as a driver to drive and pay attention to what's going on behind you. And the more challenging the roads are, the more time you have to spend looking forward and paying attention."
Bristow acknowledged some behavioral issues seem to have worsened over the years, but he said that doesn't change the fact that the students on the bus are still growing. He has seen some of them grow from slightly difficult passengers to mature riders.
"These guys and gals are going to grow up to take care of things around here," Bristow said. "They're going to be the teachers, the leaders and things like that. We've got good ones and it's good to see them grow."
Challenges aren't all about behaviors. As a substitute, Bristow was hired to combat one of the biggest challenges faced by the entire school bus world: the driver shortage. Though he may be a substitute, Bristow worked for months this school year driving as much as a full-time driver.
"This year through December it was pretty much full time running morning and afternoon routes," Bristow said. "We've hired some people to fill those spots, so I'm pretty much doing substitutions every afternoon and some mornings."
The district is still looking to fill transportation positions, including for drivers for afterschool activities. Bristow said the open driver positions are perfect opportunities for retired individuals like himself.
You might have a little problem on the bus, but they're growing up. They're kids. They're learning, and I've seen them go from kids that give us some issues, into fine adults in the community and good assets to the community.
"It's a good job," he said. "Some people have never driven that size, but it doesn't take long to find out if it's something you want to do or not. We do a training and in the years I've been here I have found hardly anyone that can't adapt to driving a bus."
Bristow thinks most people will also make a connection with the district's students as they become employees, business owners and neighbors..
"We have some discipline issues on our buses, but we have great kids in the community," Bristow said. "You might have a little problem on the bus, but they're growing up. They're kids. They're learning, and I've seen them go from kids that give us some issues, into fine adults in the community and good assets to the community."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.