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Covingtons shining lights
7 school bus drivers among those chosen
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Seven of the people who took home Shining Light awards at Thursday night's annual courthouse lighting never thought such recognition would come to them.

With more than two centuries of combined service to students, a group of the longest serving Newton County School System bus drivers have gotten used to being overlooked, but they don't mind that - because it's all about the children for Joe and Shirly Flanigan, Katrina Parker, Sandra Hilley, Pam Ballard, Lynda Holmes and Patrini Wynn.

All drivers were nominated and introduced by Melissa Thompson, a school bus driver/retainer. In her letter of nomination, Thompson wrote: "School bus drivers rarely receive any recognition for the job they do and even more rarely receive positive recognition. These drivers have driven generations of families within our communities. Their faithful service should be recognized and appreciated."

Four of the drivers (the Flanigans, Parker and Wynn) work directly under zone supervisor Robert Nash, who had nothing but positive things to say about the man and women who he considers family.

"Joe Flanigan is a pillar," he said of the 37-year driver. "He puts his heart and soul into what he is doing. He's lived in Newton County his whole life and I can put him on any route and he knows exactly where it is. He does a tremendous job and goes above and beyond for the safety of the children."

Nash said that Flanigan's wife, who has driven a bus for 34 years, always operates with safety on her mind.

"She's another one who holds safety utmost in her mind. She's punctual; I never have to worry about her and Joe. I know they will always be where they say they will on time. They are wonderful examples to the younger drivers."

He called Parker and Wynn (27 and 29 years driving respectively) "incredibly dedicated drivers."

"They are all dedicated drivers, punctual, go above and beyond. If I ever ask them to do extra, they always step up to help and they all care about the children's safety and will do everything they can to step up and stand out. I'm partial to my team; they make my job easier because they are there and I don't have to worry about them. They set a good example for the younger drivers."

Parker, who has been driving for 27 years, said when she was first told of their nomination, she didn't believe it.

"It was an honor," she said Friday. "I thought it was nice that someone could do something like that. I just couldn't believe it - the bus drivers? I had to ask her twice," she said with a laugh. "I just couldn't believe it!"

Hilley, who has spent 28 years behind the wheel said, "I thought it was great. To recognize us old drivers who've been there so long!"

Ballard, whose father drove a Newton County bus for 50 years, said that she originally thought she would work in the store her parents owned, but after becoming a single mom, she decided to start driving a bus like her dad.

"I'm just addicted to the kids," she said with a chuckle. "I still call them all my kids and I'm to my third generation of the same families. Some of my routes are the original ones I got in January 1976 when I started. I really love it. You do the same route but you have a different challenge every year with a child. One little girl who rode my bus is a driver now. If you just touch one life a year, it's worth it all."

Thompson, who nominated her fellow drivers, said many of the school system's 178 drivers are second or third generation bus divers, including Wynn, whose father was a bus driver and mechanic.

"I said, ‘I think I want to drive when I get old enough... I think I want to drive... I think I want to drive.' My dad said he didn't want me to drive," Wynn said. "Joe Flanigan was the one who talked me into driving.

"Every year, I've been saying this is my last year, this is my last year. I've been driving 27 years, but every year I say this is going to be my last year," she said and laughed. "Once I get rested over the summer I want to see my children. I want to see those kids again. I've been driving for three or four years and haven't missed a day. You know I must love my job."

On the flip side, Joe Flanigan has hauled four generations of families around, picking up great-grandchildren of the children he transported nearly 40 years ago, Thompson said.

The Flanigans didn't meet driving a bus; they were high school sweethearts, who have now been married 45 years. Shirley said she started driving when her kids were in school with the thought that when they finished, she would too, but then she decided that sitting at home wasn't for her. She's now driven all of her grandchildren as well.

"We just love kids," she said of herself and husband Joe. "It felt good to get that recognition; I enjoyed that. We hadn't been recognized like that before. And some of the kids were there that rode our bus and they just hollered! It made me feel good, it really did."

Joe said he was surprised but proud of the recognition. "It makes me feel real good, those kids now still call me Mr. Flanigan and they still recognize me. The little kids now are the same way. I can be over at Oak Hill [elementary school] and all of them go hollering. That's what kept me driving this long - the school kids. I won't say I enjoy 100 percent of them, but 50-75 percent of the kids, I enjoy them. It's really a pleasure to be employed with the board of education. I have a great supervisor and he respects me and I respect him."

Though the Flanigans didn't promote this fact, other drivers said that the couple was an inspiration in the way they cared about children, frequently attending band concerts, sporting events and other extracurricular events to show support for the children on their bus. It takes a village to raise a child after all.

"Kids will ask me, ‘Can you come to my band concert?' I can't tell you how many band concerts I've gone to for the kids, as well as school events and (sports) games. I've even been to a reading bowl. I was the only adult there to cheer them on," said Thompson, who said so many of the drivers are the same way.

Lynda Holmes is the same way and like Shirley Flanigan, Holmes also got into the business instead of being a stay-at-home mom.

"That lasted about two weeks," Holmes said of staying home.

She loved the fact that being a bus driver got her out of the house, but also provided her the opportunity to spend time with her three young children by allowing her to be a home room mother and go on field trips. Today, she's the proud mother of an EMT, electrician and builder and the proud grandmother of eight.

When asked about the biggest misconception of bus drivers, Holmes said people often mistakenly think drivers are uneducated.

"At least 75 to 85 percent of us are college graduates. People think we couldn't get another job, but for a lot of us, it's that we wouldn't turn our back on those kids."

She also said people think the atmosphere on the bus is horrible, but she said bus drivers often take the time to listen to and support their kids, playing the role of a surrogate parent.

"If you sit down and talk to your children and listen to them, that's the basic thing. You've got to listen to these kids. If you treat them the way you want to be treated, you're not going to any problems on your bus," Holmes said.

Michael Barr, director of support services for the school system, congratulated the drivers during the ceremony, according to a press release from the school system.

"I appreciate Ms. Thompson and everyone else involved in recognizing these school bus drivers who have been dedicated to the young people in Newton County for so many years. This group is representative of all our bus drivers and staff who work hard every day to make certain students have safe and dependable transportation," Barr said.

Wynn may have summed it up best.

"When you go through school with these students, from Pre-K through sixth, seventh and eighth grade, you feel like they're your children," Wynn said. "You don't want anything to happen to them, because you feel like they're my kids."

Editor Gabriel Khouli contributed to this story.