Mary Philblad and Joel Kemp: 40 years of safely transporting ‘precious cargo’ in School District 197

Mary Philblad drops off her bus load of kids on Feb. 25 at Pilot Knob Elementary in Eagan. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Mary Philblad drops off her bus load of kids on Feb. 25 at Pilot Knob Elementary in Eagan. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Joel Kemp stands in front of his latest repair project. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Joel Kemp stands in front of his latest repair project. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Mary Philblad prepares her bus for an afternoon shift. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Mary Philblad prepares her bus for an afternoon shift. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Joel Kemp taking a look under the hood of one of the 65 buses in the fleet he maintains. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Joel Kemp taking a look under the hood of one of the 65 buses in the fleet he maintains. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)

A school bus driver and a mechanic, setting high standards

From kindergarten to high school, many students start their school day before they enter the classroom. They begin their school day by stepping foot onto a school bus. Mary Philblad, 72, knows this to be true. For the past 40 years, she’s been driving students in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District from their homes, to school and back. With the support of Joel Kemp, 62, her trusted mechanic at the bus garage, she’s able to sit behind the wheel with confidence. Their shared sense of responsibility and pride in a facet of the education system that doesn’t receive much recognition sets Philblad and Kemp apart as leaders of 40  years at the district’s transportation office.

“We’re not transporting potatoes. We’ve got some precious cargo,” the district’s transportation operations manager Joe Kulhanek says. “People like Joel and Mary help other people understand that concept.”

From coveting curtains to grinding gears

Few navigate the northern Dakota County suburbs with more caution and consistency than Mary Philblad, 72, who’s been picking up schoolchildren, transporting them at times along the freeways and delivering them to school for the past 40 years.  

Her 180-mile daily route has become second nature, but she doesn’t let familiarity hamper her sense of alertness behind the wheel. Young lives depend on it, both in terms of staying safe on the road and starting their school day off on the right foot.

“I love everything about it,” Philblad says. “I love the structure of the day — it keeps me going. I love the kids.

“I love the respect it gives me for when I drive in neighborhoods. You don’t race through the neighborhoods. You need to be respectful everywhere you drive.

“Back in 1975, an interior decorating project inspired Philblad to apply for a bus driver position with District 197’s transportation office, where her late husband, Lyle, had previously had a job.

“I wanted new drapes,” Philblad says. “That’s the truth.”

She and a neighbor who was also looking to supplement child rearing with employment decided to alternate babysitting duties so they could both pick up a shift driving school buses.

“It empowered my mom for not only the curtains, but it gave her a say in things,” Pam Lange says, noting her mother’s new satifaction and confidence from being a breadwinner lent her a larger voice in family decisions.

The endeavor, however, proved more intense than Philblad had originally anticipated. She underwent four days of training, learning to drive a stick shift by piloting a lumbering school bus straight onto the streets of downtown Minneapolis.

“I was terrified,” Philblad says, recalling her crash course. “You either swim or sink, you know. But I liked it. Then I grew to love it.”

She spent her first two years driving mainstreamed special education students, then started picking up shifts to drive just special education students. Philblad quickly came to cherish the students on those routes, and they and their parents soon trusted her. She became a go-to driver for special ed routes.

Her fondness led her to care deeply for her charges, but her common sense kept her from being overattentive and perhaps implying they weren’t actually able in many ways.

“All situations are different,” she says. “You have to be careful you are respectful of their situation.”

One more person who sees potential

A neighbor and former coworker, Marla Collins, can speak to Philblad’s ability to connect with passengers who require more personalized care and attention. Philblad drove Collins’ son, Jacob Husknik. Since Husknik has Asperger’s, Collins appreciated the opportunity to discuss expectations with Philblad before sending her son to school on a bus for the first time.

“She always treated him with absolute respect and dignity,” Collins says. “She really saw things in him that other people didn’t see. We were so grateful for that because we knew his potential.”

Now 26 years old, Husknik works for FedEx and serves as a firefighter.

Having trained in other drivers to specialize in special education routes, Philblad left a lasting impression on many colleagues who have since retired as well.

Vicki Baker, one of Philblad’s apprentices who retired last year, shared Philblad’s appreciation for the one-on-one relationship with her passengers.

“Things aren’t black and white, necessarily, with special needs,” she says. “You go with the flow. [Mary] always advocated for the kids. If she wasn’t comfortable with something, she would let a teacher or a parent know.”

The whole child

Philblad’s instinct to monitor the well-being of her passengers on or off the bus led to a number of extra projects, such as outfitting students with coats and shoes when their families couldn’t afford them.

In terms of creating a positive environment on the bus, Philblad’s retired bus aide, Kenny Wallert, says she was notorious for singing behind the wheel.

“She had a voice that would make a dog howl. She would sing off key, just butcher the song,” he says, noting she sang this way on purpose, provoking students to laugh and correct her.

He says Philblad is a strict driver, but the two of them also cared about keeping their passengers entertained on the bus. They always stocked games, stuffed animals and books on board for the kids.

And when holidays roll around, Philblad wears something festive — whether it’s a light-up shamrock pin or a head-to-toe costume.

As a member of the Powder Puff Clown Club, Philblad occasionally performs at the schools she serves. And she’s perfectly comfortable getting more mileage out of her costume by wearing her red nose, colorful wig and oversized baby bonnet when she’s driving students the same day, Baker says.

Getting everybody on board

Given Philblad’s yen to entertain on the bus, it’s no surprise that she kick-started the “sunshine club” back at the transportation office. She’s long been a driving force behind organizing the annual chili contest, sending cards out to employees in need of support and — on at least one occasion — covering the mechanics’ work table in wrapping paper.

“It was wonderful,” Philblad says of the club she started in 1976. “We’ve been doing it ever since.”

While Philblad invests quite a bit of energy into social situations, both on the bus and at the office, she’s mindful to prioritize sleep so that she’s never driving on fumes.

Unabashedly, she says she’s in bed by 7:30 p.m. each night, so she can get up by 4 a.m. the next morning and stay alert for the duration of her shift, which starts with a bus inspection at 6:15 a.m.

“We need our rest. Not only [for] the driving part, but the responsibility, the attention, the stress — it takes a lot out of you,” she says.  

Her clean driving record serves as proof that she takes her responsibilities as a school bus driver seriously. In the span of four decades, she’s only been in four accidents, none of which resulted in any major injuries or were attributed to an error on her end.

Toying with ideas of pursuing something more low-key in retirement, Philblad says she’d consider planting flowers at a local greenhouse. But that transition is still a way down the road.

“Right now I still love working,” she says, making it clear the wheels on her bus will continue to spin around and around.


Under the bus, under the hood

District 197 depends on the talent of its longtime mechanic, Joel Kemp, 62, to make sure all the district’s 65 school buses are well maintained to transport roughly 4,500 young passengers each day.

In Kemp’s realm, each bus that passes through his garage deserves the same level of care and attention as the students they carry.

“Oh, they’re like children, I tell ya,” he says, able to name the exact make and model number of each bus he’s worked on over the past four decades.

Kemp views his 40 years of mechanical work at the bus garage as having come full circle.

“I’m a product of this school district,” he says.

In 1971, he graduated from the old Henry Sibley High School in West St. Paul, right before the new high school opened in Mendota Heights. He then studied at Dakota County Technical College, graduating two years later.

After working at a gas station for a few years, he grew antsy for something more challenging. Through a referral from a friend, he ended up connecting with the lead mechanic at the district’s transportation office and never left.

“I love my work,” Kemp says. “It’s always been important for me to give back to the district because they gave me so many life skills.”

Learning from experience, Kept expanded his repertoire from automotive mechanical skills to medium-duty truck work, eventually working his way up the ranks.

Socket wrenches to software

Back when he first started, all the components of the buses were manual. Then, in 1994, the first buses with computerized components hit the market. While the drivers were relieved at the prospect of no longer having to fight the steering wheel in cold weather, Kemp had to scramble to learn new upkeep techniques in the shop.

“That was kind of a big year for me because I had to learn how to operate a laptop,” he says.

Prior to that, he says 1975 marked a significant upgrade in equipment at the transportation office. The district purchased its first special needs bus with a wheelchair lift. That was unit 750, he says with a hint of nostalgia.

Nowadays, it’s just Kemp and one other mechanic, Chuck Lamers, keeping the district’s fleet of 65 buses running. The two have worked together for the past 21 years. They’re responsible for just about everything short of major engine work: oil changes, brake jobs, tires, oil leaks, window and seat repairs and more.

It’s a lot for two people to manage, Kemp says. He’ll usually have a bus or two inside the garage that require a more involved repair job, but anticipates getting pulled away to address other issues that come up each day.

“A lot of times you have to deal with ‘little fires’ that pop up, especially in the cold weather,” he says.

It’s an inconvenience, in some regards, but the spontaneity is also what keeps Kemp intrigued.

Variety, responsibility trump automation

Growing up, he remembers his father venting about the repetitive nature of his job on an assembly line at an old Ford Motor plant.

Now a father of two grown boys, Kemp appreciates not only the gratification he gets out of fixing a mechanical issue, but also the level of responsibility that comes with his job.

“With every bus comes a driver and every bus has the ability to carry passengers,” he says. “I have a great responsibility to make sure buses are safe.”

Lamers says Kemp “bleeds school bus” — he puts time in over the weekends when needed and casts a keen eye on anyone wielding a wrench in his presence.

“He’s always jumping into things I’m working on,” Lamers says. “Sometimes you have to fight him off, say, ‘Hey, I can handle this.’ That’s just the way he is.”

Kemp says he starts each day with a workout routine before heading into the shop for his 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. shift. He’ll keep working as long as he has the physical strength needed to execute his duties, he says.

“When you look at the very dedicated core of people you have here, you don’t get that with a contractor,” Kemp says. “We all feel like we’ve got a vested interest and a deep sense of pride in what we do.”

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

 

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