At a recent bridal shower, Laura Ladd Jones was just another 60-something woman in the crowd – until school board member Rhonda Cheek introduced her as the voice of Gus the Bus. Then the younger women began to shriek like a celebrity had appeared in their midst.
For 34 years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ talking school bus has taught bus safety to more than 670,000 children. Many are now old enough to see their own children meet Gus.
“There are certain Charlotte icons, and that’s one of them,” Christi Sims, assistant principal at Croft Elementary School, said when CMS celebrated Gus’ 30th anniversary. “To be a CMS student and see Gus the Bus, that’s just a rite of passage.”
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On Wednesday, Jones retires from the CMS transportation department after more than 41 years.
She started the work that made her alter-ego famous in the wake of tragedy: North Carolina lost nine children to traffic accidents at bus stops in 1983. Two of the fatalities were in Mecklenburg County. CMS equipped Gus with a face and a piped-in voice. Jones learned to take a position near enough to see the kids but out of their sight, so she could interact with them in the persona of Gus.
Tuesday was a day of farewells for those involved with CMS’ massive bus fleet. Not only did the school board honor Jones, but it saluted James Draffin, who will retire as a maintenance services supervisor June 1, after 50 years on the job. He started with CMS in 1968, worked his way up through a range of jobs in the bus maintenance shop and got promoted to his current post in 1974. That means he was fixing buses that carried today’s CMS parents and grandparents.
And Janet Thomas, who has been head of the transportation department since 2016, announced she’ll also retire at year’s end.
“If you’ve ever worked in transportation, blood runs yellow in your veins,” Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper, who spent years running the bus fleet, said in saluting the retirees.
Jones says she won’t be a CMS employee any longer, but she intends to keep working in bus safety as a volunteer.
“She’s irreplaceable,” Thomas said of Jones. “But we’re going to see what we can do.”