Staying with his grandmother on a farm in rural Vicksburg, Miss., George Stewart got behind the wheel when he was just eight years old. In addition to driving pick-ups and tractors at the farm, he took practice laps in a Pinto around the local church.
“I wasn’t exactly short and in those cars you could move the seat up pretty close,” Stewart said of his early driver’s education, intended to serve as a safety net should his family have faced an emergency that demanded a young driver.
Later, going to school in Chicago, Ill., Stewart used transit to get just about everywhere.
The childhood experiences came together in 2010 when Stewart became a full-time operator at Metro Transit. His first trip: a west-to-east run on Route 16, among the busiest of Metro Transit’s 120-plus routes.
“The bus was packed and I was sweating bullets,” Stewart said recently from Martin J. Ruter Garage, where he has worked since last fall. “That was basic training right there. I thought, ‘If I can get through this, I can get through anything.’”
Stewart rarely sweats these days. As an “extraboard” driver, he drives different routes based on the particular -- often unplanned -- needs of the day. After spending time at Nicollet, Heywood and Ruter garages, he estimates that he’s driven around two-thirds of the routes.
Though each had a learning curve, Stewart said he chose the variety because it has given him an opportunity to challenge himself. With most routes now committed to memory, Stewart is able to take on new routes with confidence.
“I didn't want to fear any route I drove,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be uncomfortable anywhere, which meant being uncomfortable for a while.”
The spontaneity of the extraboard has also led Stewart to the scenes of several emergencies in which buses were used as temporary shelter. In one recent incident, he was dispatched to provide shelter for displaced customers and employees during a bomb threat ("Next stop, Las Vegas," he remembers telling those on board to lighten the mood).
While each day is different than the last, Stewart says he’s still able to recognize customers who have traveled with him in the past. Building those relationships, he says, is one of his favorite parts of the job.
Stewart says his work has been fulfilling but that he still aspires to do more. His hope is to grow into a training or supervisor role at Metro Transit so he can share what he's learned. Wherever he goes next, Stewart says he will continue to challenge himself.
“This is a great job to build character,” he said. “You’re tested everywhere – from the schedule to other cars, pedestrians, bicyclists – your mind is always going.”
Operator at a Glance
Name: George Stewart
Hired: July 12, 2010
Employee Number: 70164
Routes: As an extraboard driver, Stewart is assigned to routes as needed. After spending time at Nicollet, Heywood and Ruter garages, Stewart estimates he’s driven around two-thirds of the more than 120 routes Metro Transit operates.
Hobbies: Outside of work, Stewart enjoys spending time with his family (four children and wife), playing basketball, writing poetry and recording music.
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