Needing money to put herself through school, Renee Stafford taught swim lessons and worked as a lifeguard. But traveling between the University of Minnesota and her Mounds View home on Route 25, she was inspired to pursue a different line of work: driving a bus.
At 19-years-old, she submitted an application but was told she was too young. Within a month of her 21st birthday, after reaching the minimum age requirement, she tried again. And so began a career that has spanned nearly four decades, hundreds of thousands of miles and countless passengers.
Stafford’s career choice still raises eyebrows among some family and friends. But no one is perhaps more astonished than Stafford that, after four decades of driving, she has become Metro Transit’s longest-tenured female operator.
“I’m still pretty amazed by the fact that I get to move this 40-foot, 20-ton vehicle through heavy traffic, ice, snow or whatever,” she said. “I really get a kick out of the fact that this is what I’m doing.”
Surprising people has been a part of the job from the very beginning. When Stafford began in June 1976 she was among a handful of women driving buses. “We (women) were kind of an oddity when I started,” Stafford remembered. “Even now, people I meet away from work are shocked that I drive a city bus.”
That pressure was only compounded by the fact that Stafford had little experience in the urban environment she was now a part of. She remembers being “terrified” the first time she drove the bus alone in heavy traffic during rush hour – a Route 17A that ran from downtown Minneapolis to Uptown.
The fear didn’t linger long, though. With each customer she met and each mile she drove, Stafford’s confidence grew. Today, she is widely recognized as a bright and cheerful presence both on the bus and with her peers at Nicollet Garage. (She also has a reputation for generosity: she and her husband have served as caretakers for three fellow bus operators stricken with cancer.)
“This job has helped me in a lot of ways, but in particular it’s taught me how to talk to people, because I was really forced to,” Stafford said. “I talk to everybody now, even if they don’t look particularly happy. I don’t want to say it’s a game, but I definitely take it as a challenge to get people to smile.”
Her eventual ease in the driver’s seat is part of the reason Stafford continued driving after graduating college. (A poor job market – combined with decisions to purchase a home and car – also provided some motivation.)
Not that her education hasn’t been useful. Stafford said she routinely applies the lessons she learned while studying to become a teacher, primarily when it comes to interacting with and helping customers.
“I have my degree and I think I use it every day, just maybe not in the way my parents thought I would,” she said.
In addition to her warm personality, Stafford prides herself on being a safe and reliable operator. She has 35 years of safe driving, which she credits largely to a commitment to the techniques taught in the Safety Keys training program.
“The Safety Keys are a big part of what I do,” Stafford said. “But I also always expect people to do the dumbest, most dangerous thing they could do.”
Her customers notice and appreciate her work. Driving Route 9 for the last six years, Stafford has become endeared to many longtime customers, including Minneapolis resident John Murphy. In a recent letter, Murphy thanked Stafford for being on time so he could catch his connecting bus and for always greeting him with a smile.
“Renee is not only an excellent bus driver, but very friendly and willing to chat,” he wrote. “I have been riding the bus for over 35 years and Renee is without a doubt the best driver I've ever had.”
As a Project Mobility operator, driving customers who could not use regular route bus service, Stafford became so beloved by a few of her customers that they even asked her to provide transportation on their wedding days.
The relationships Stafford has developed driving and among her fellow operators are what keeps her coming back.
“This job has allowed me to meet so many wonderful people, both passengers and co-workers,” she said. “I’m a better person for knowing them and that’s why I continue to love what I do, even after all these years.”
Name: Renee Stafford
Hired: June 1, 1976
Employee Number: 603
Hobbies: Renee regularly plays golf and also enjoys scuba diving, reading, gardening and traveling. She also has a small collection of holiday-themed and year-round snow globes.
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