Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in October 2013.
In 1983, North Carolina had a problem: Nine children had died in traffic accidents at bus stops, including two in Mecklenburg County.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had a solution: Create a talking school bus to teach children about safety.
Laura Ladd Jones had a freshly-minted teaching certificate. Jones, a truck driver’s daughter who started driving a school bus at 16, was the perfect candidate to create safety lessons and take Gus the Bus to schools.
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The result is a 30-year partnership that has become a part of Charlotte culture. Jones and Gus have talked to an estimated 567,000 children in the last three decades.
“There are certain Charlotte icons, and that’s one of them,” says Christi Sims, dean of students at Croft Elementary School. “To be a CMS student and see Gus the Bus, that’s just a rite of passage.”
Sims, now 36, was among the first children to meet Gus. This week she worked with Jones to line up his visit to her school.
CMS is celebrating Gus’ 30th birthday this month, but it’s no farewell party for Jones. At 63, she has no interest in retiring.
“Gus is still an important job to me,” Jones said. “I think he’s pretty special. As long as they remember their safety rules, I don’t care if they remember me.”
How does he know?
When Jessica Forte brought her Clear Creek Elementary kindergarteners outside on Wednesday, 6-year-old Jada Collins-Turner scrunched her shoulders in delight.
“I love Gus the Bus!” she said.
“I’m scared,” said 5-year-old Triniti James.
The children had already gotten a safety talk from Jones, complete with coloring books and lots of tips. Jones explained that Gus was ready to retire from active duty in 1983 when he heard about the tragedies at bus stops. So, Jones said, Gus decided to launch a new career telling children how to avoid getting hurt.
Afterward, one class at a time filed out and stood in front of Gus, with orange traffic cones marking the “danger zone,” where children are too close for the driver to see them. Staying out of that zone is one of Gus’ messages. He also talks to kids about staying at least “five giant steps” from the road when they’re waiting at bus stops, stopping to look both ways before crossing a street and behaving on the bus so they don’t distract drivers.
The kids laughed and answered Gus’ questions. But the high point came after the tips, when Gus started calling out children by name: who rides which bus, who has a baby at home or an older sister at school, who likes ninjas or just had a birthday.
“Jada, I hear you’ve been taking dance classes. Is that right?” Gus asked in his creaky robotic voice.
“Yes!” Jada answered.
Triniti said she’d decided Gus wasn’t scary. But she looked a bit crestfallen: She doesn’t ride a bus, so she didn’t think Gus would call her name. A moment later, Gus announced that he’d heard Triniti was a car-rider.
Afterward, Gus invited the kindergarteners to come inside to see that there’s no one hiding in the bus talking for him. He even urged them to check under their seats. No one!
In Charlotte, Gus is a bit like Santa Claus. He’s magic to the youngsters, and you’re never too old to believe.
“I totally remember Gus! He came in first grade. We had no idea where his voice came from. And I did obey the bus safety tips as a student who rode the bus every year,” recalls 22-year-old Caitlin Snead, a 2009 graduate of Northwest School of the Arts. And she isn’t about to let Jones’ 30-year tenure explain away the mystery: “Gus is a bus, not a woman!”
Jones is never too far away from her six-wheeled partner, even if the kids never see her. She works with school staff to prepare him for the visits. Gus doesn’t mind cluing kids in on that part: He does his homework, just like they should. And if he mispronounces a name, well, he says, there’s a reason most buses go by numbers. They just aren’t good with names.
CMS didn’t create the idea of a talking safety bus. About the time Gus debuted, Union County had Big Gus, and Wake County had Sparky the Safety Bus, both of which were real buses, Jones says. Several districts around the country use Buster, a remote-controlled miniature bus who talks to students.
But CMS is the only North Carolina district with a full-time teacher whose job is bus safety. That’s partly because smaller districts don’t have enough young children to make the work a full-time job. But it’s also because Jones’ enthusiasm has kept the program thriving.
Wake, for instance, long ago gave up Sparky and now uses the Internet to relay bus safety tips. In most districts, “people kind of fit it in as they can,” said Derek Graham, the state’s top transportation official. “This is unique.”
A longtime love
So how did Jones find a passion that still lights her up 30 years later, leading to a partnership that has outlasted most marriages?
In the 1970s, when she was a student at South Mecklenburg High, students were hired as bus drivers. At 16, she got the job. She quips that it was the best way to get a vehicle to drive to school.
She went to UNC Charlotte to study education but married and started her family before graduating. When she went back to work, she drove a CMS bus and assisted in classrooms. And when she got her degree in early childhood education and her teaching certification, the district was looking for someone with her unusual mix of skills.
Her patience and sense of humor have proven useful. Jones likes to recall the time that a school police officer wandered by Gus when no kids were around. Gus started talking to the officer, who looked inside and under the bus, demanding to know who was speaking. Gus insisted it was just him, the talking bus - and called the officer by name. Jones, who had noticed the officer’s name tag earlier, laughed as children approached and the officer summoned his dignity to walk off.
But her overriding motivation is clear: “Anything I can do to keep these little ones safe. ... If I had to stand on my head, I would.”
Neither the state nor CMS keeps records on bus-stop accidents, so there are no numbers to judge Gus’ effectiveness.
One story makes the 30 years worth it for Jones. Several years ago, school officials told her about a girl whose bus driver had reported that she was bad about running into the street when she got off the bus.
Gus had a special talk with that girl, emphasizing how dangerous that can be. As teachers later recounted it to Jones, that afternoon the girl stopped and looked, just like Gus told her to - just as a driver blew through a stop sign.
Gus has changed a bit over the decades. He used to have children painted on his side and a rather feminine set of red lips. These days he sports red, white and blue waves and a big black grill-grin.
The job has evolved, too. In the early years Gus did bus-evacuation drills for second- and third-graders. But CMS got too big for that. The district now has 101 elementary schools and about 25,000 kindergartners and first-graders. It’s a full-time job for Gus and Jones to get to them, even with the help of a radio-controlled Buster.
Many Gus fans are old enough to drive, which means Jones often sees drivers maneuvering to get a cellphone shot when she’s taking him from one school to another. “I think, ‘Oh heavenly days - please don’t have a wreck!’ “
Gus has appeared in every Thanksgiving Day parade since 1983, and he’s a regular at Festival in the Park and the North Mecklenburg Christmas Parade.
Sims, the Croft Elementary dean, knows all about how Jones and Gus work together. Her thrill now comes from seeing a new generation of children marvel at the talking bus.
But when she walked out with a group of children this week, she heard the voice from her past. “Hey, Ms. Sims,” Gus said. “I remember you.”
“I relived that feeling,” she said. “Omigosh! Gus the Bus knew my name!”