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For more than five decades James Bryant has been driving students in Bedford County to, and from, school.
There aren’t any official records, but his tenure has to be among the longest in Virginia.
Bryant, 75, began his long and distinguished career as a bus driver in 1959. “I decided I would give it a try,” he said of taking a bus route.
He hasn’t regretted that decision. It was truly life-changing—it’s how he met Hilda, who would eventually become his wife.
Bryant’s first bus route was taking students to Otter River Elementary. Included on that bus were students who would transfer buses at that school to go to Susie G. Gibson High School. Hilda, and her cousin, were among those students en route to Gibson; they always sat behind James.
“I could hear her talking,” James said of Hilda. Eventually he told her, “If you want to know who I am, why don’t you ask me?”
They did, indeed, start talking. “Things happen,” James said. “I was real glad she did ask.”
Hilda and James started dating and, after she graduated, they got married in 1961.
James grew up in Goode, but moved to Washington D.C. when he was 16, with 18 cents in his pocket. He got a job as a delivery truck driver there, but moved back to Bedford County in 1958. When the route opened up for a bus driver, he took the job. Back then he was making $65 a month.
The Bryant’s first child was born in 1962. They bought their home—where they still live on Thomas Jefferson Road—for $2,500. It was a four-room house where they raised all three of their children, two daughters and a son. They’ve added onto it themselves. Their children attended New London Academy and graduated from Jefferson Forest High School.
“God has blessed me to come a long way with a few dollars,” James said.
And he’s worked hard. For many years he worked at a Lynchburg foundry while also driving the school bus. He also did some plumbing work.
“It’s good to struggle sometimes,” James said. “I’m not rich; I’m not poor.”
At one point, his hours were changed at the foundry and James thought he was going to have to give up his bus route. His supervisor had him train Hilda to drive the bus; he only had three days. Hilda drove the route in the mornings and James drove it in the afternoons after he got off work.
They did this for three months, until the foundry laid him off. But Hilda’s driving days weren’t over, either. She got her own route and drove a school bus for the county for 28 years, retiring three years ago.
After leaving the foundry, James went to work for a neighbor in a well-drilling business.
“We struggled, but it was a proud struggle,” James said, crediting Hilda and God’s blessing for the success they had in raising their children.
For the most part, James said he hasn’t had problems with students on his school bus. Among his riders were his own children. “I treated them the same way I treated everyone else’s kids,” he said. That meant, if they weren’t at the bus stop when he arrived, they were left behind and Hilda had to take them to school.
James has also driven his grandchildren to school on his bus.
Currently, his route includes taking students to Forest Middle School and JFHS.
“I have respect for the kids,” James said.
And they respect him. “If you give respect, you can receive respect,” he said. “In the long term, you won’t have any problems.”
He’s had few problems on his bus, over the years. “I’m very lucky, I’ve run across some good people,” James said. “You’ve got to treat people the way you want to be treated.”
And he’s appreciated his supervisors; and they’ve appreciated him.
“He’s been a super employee,” stated Pat Whorley, Bedford County Public School’s transportation coordinator. “He’s always one of the first ones to jump in and help out.”
Whorley said James has a “great rapport” with the parents and students. She said he deals with any issues that come up. “He’s kind of from the old school,” Whorley said. “The kids respect him.”
And he has an excellent safety record.
“He just generally seems to enjoy the students and enjoy what he does,” she said.
And James enjoys his job.
“I just love driving the bus,” he said. “I love children.”
James doesn’t have any desire to stop driving his bus.
“As long as the doctor says my physical condition is OK (I will continue).”