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Sunday, February 15, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Memories, Thanks For Kelso Bus Driver At Retirement Party

The Daily News

KELSO - The old wood stove in the Mount Brynion Grange was stoked up and belching out heat, but the real warmth emanated from Joe Hubbard. His blue eyes watery, his round face flabbergasted, Hubbard couldn't believe the people gathered for his surprise party.

He hardly recognized Tom Mitchell. But then, Mitchell last climbed aboard Hubbard's school bus in 1976. Mitchell, 39, recently moved back to Kelso after 15 years in the service and five years working in Portland.

The bus driver sized up his former charge and said, "You grew a little bit."

28 years of service

Hubbard, 71, retired in November after 28 years as a bus driver for the Kelso School District on the Mount Brynion route.

"We've had the best driver in the world," said Sheryl Painter Page, who rode the bus with Hubbard at the wheel from the time she was 5 until she graduated from Kelso High School in 1980. Then Page's two children continued the tradition.

"I got him a thank-you card instead of a retirement card," Page said. "Joe was always there for us."

At the party, his riders returned the favor. Children from the route, their parents, and riders from the past gathered recently for cake, punch and story-swapping.

They remembered the treats Joe passed out at Halloween and Christmas time.

"We would draw for little prizes and then the big one," Page said. "The kids really were good for him. There were a few bad seeds, of course."

To this day, Hubbard remembers one of the rascals he had to report for bad behavior.

"He was expelled," Hubbard said. "I never saw him for years. Then one day I stopped by a used-car lot and there he was."

The fellow, now in his 30s, approached Hubbard.

" `Aren't you Joe?' he asked me."

"I said yes."

"He said, `Joe, I'm so sorry the way I acted.' "

A guardian angel

It wasn't only schoolchildren's antics that brought the bus to a halt. Some would say a guardian angel interrupted the route one day.

"Joe had stopped to discipline some rowdies," Rosemary Painter said. "While he was settling them down, on the next turn in the road, right there at Croy's corner, a runaway log truck came across the road and right through the guardrail. That truck was loaded. And he had no brakes.

"I thank God every night that Joe stopped to discipline those kids."

First Painter's children and then her grandkids rode with Hubbard. "We put them into very trusted hands," she said. "They're a precious possession."

"We were always safe," Page added. "We never had any accidents. Once in the snow, Joe made it up the hill, but he had to stop to put the chains on before he could get back down. He made us stay on the bus; of course we wanted to get out and play. It was excellent snow."

Hubbard remembers that day, too.

"They teach you to always take the keys out when you leave the bus," he said. "I had 'em in my pocket. While I was putting on the chains they fell out. I lost the keys in the snow. I had to call to the bus garage to bring me up some keys."

Pictures and memories

Over the years, Hubbard asked the kids for their wallet-sized school pictures. He kept them in an album that his wife, Donna, spirited away to share at the party.

Rows and rows of photos track the children from missing front teeth to braces to graduation.

"Look!" called a woman hunched over the book. "Here's the boy my sister had a crush on."

There are baseball pictures and birthday cards. Next to a photo of a slender girl in a long dress is her wedding invitation and this note: "When I come back to visit my family, I'll hop on the bus for a chat. Love, Debbie."

A grinning little girl included the penciled notation, "TO JOE FORM CHRISSY."

Lori Halliday Martinson, who graduated from Kelso in 1977, came up from Vancouver for the party. Flipping through the album, Martinson stopped. "I know who this is, but I can't remember her name."

"Croy?" somebody suggested.

"Debbie Croy," Hubbard announced.

One page holds only a newspaper clipping under the clear plastic sheet. "That's Aleta Leggett," said Hubbard. The clipping is her obituary. "She died of encephalitis when she was 18."

Following in his tracks

Terry McKee lives on Mount Brynion. She used to see Hubbard rolling up the hill before she had any children. "I'd wave to him and think, `That would be fun, driving a bus. I like kids.' "

Her two sons, Jerry and Mathew, are 14 and 11 now. Every year they've ridden with the same driver who once waved at their mother. And Mom has, indeed, followed in Hubbard's wheel tracks.

"I've been driving bus for six years, counting the years I substituted," McKee said. "The kids just touch your life. They become a part of you."

Patty Oster, bus dispatcher for the Kelso District, rode Hubbard's bus as a youngster and then drove a school bus herself for 20 years before the dispatch job.

"Joe's a dedicated driver who cares about what he does," Oster said. "He was always early and he stayed late . . .

"He cared about the people he worked with as much as he cared about the kids. And he knew the parents. On any job, you've got people that work, and get the job done, but they never really get involved. Joe got involved."

Now Hubbard needs a rest. He's looking forward to more time on his 10 acres in Clatskanie, which he and Donna share with four goats, one rooster and four turkeys.

That's about it for hobbies, the bus driver said. "I'd rather watch the deer than shoot 'em."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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