Traveling between the University of Minnesota and her Mounds View home on Route 25, Renee Stafford started to think she might like working as a bus operator. At 19-years-old, she submitted an application but was told she was too young. But the thought persisted and a month of her 21st birthday, after reaching the minimum age requirement, she tried again. It was the beginning of a career that would span more than four decades, hundreds of thousands of miles and countless passengers and end with Stafford retiring as Metro Transit’s longest-tenured female operator.
While Stafford didn’t initially expect to spend her life as a bus operator, she quickly grew to enjoy the work and stayed on after earning her degree in education. It was a surprising decision that raised eyebrows among family, friends and Stafford herself. One of just a few female operators, Stafford was also introverted and largely unfamiliar with the urban environment she found herself working in. 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. At her retirement, she was remembered as a bright and cheerful presence both on the bus and with her peers at Nicollet Garage. Stafford spent the last seven years of her career on Route 9, developing friendships with many longtime customers. But all those who boarded Stafford’s bus were greeted warmly. “I talk to everybody now, even if they don’t look particularly happy,” she said. “I don’t want to say it’s a game, but I definitely take it as a challenge to get people to smile.” Customers could also be assured of a safe ride: she retired with 37 years of safe driving, which she credited to a commitment to Safety Keyes and a habit of expecting people to do the “dumbest, most dangerous thing they could do.”
Stafford retired in June 2017, exactly 41 years after she began. At her retirement, Stafford said it was the relationships she developed that she ultimately cherished and will miss the most about working at Metro Transit. “I have friends that I pick up every day, and I’m going to miss that,” she said. In retirement, Stafford planned to spend more time traveling, golfing and enjoying life.
See a video of Stafford taking her final trip on KARE-11.