Staff Photo: Jay Jones
Donna Beam has driven children to and from school in Rockdale County for nearly 40 years. It’s been the only job she’s had and she enjoys the children on her route and the camaraderie of the other school bus drivers. She said retirement “has not crossed her mind at all.”
CONYERS — This past week, a picture of Donna Beam appeared on the bulletin board at the Rockdale County school bus barn on Main Street that noted she was entering her 40th year driving children to and from school. She said it gave her some attention from her fellow bus drivers.
"They saw the picture back there with me and 40 years and they said ‘that warrants something,'" Beam said, "and I said ‘I don't think it warrants retiring because that ain't going to happen.'"
Beam started driving a school bus for Rockdale County when Richard Nixon was president and the county had one high school. Technological advances such as cell phones, hand-held gaming devices and automatic transmission on most buses were a thing of the future.
Beam said it was the first job she applied for. At the time, driving a school bus was attractive to her because it fit her schedule of being a young mother with three children.
Work was always important to Beam, who said she learned early in life that there is something to being able to support one's self. She was able to put that life lesson to use in a short time having married at 15 and becoming a mother at 17 years old.
Driving the bus helped with keeping the family together and pay the bills, she said. Her husband, Albert, worked for many years at Lithonia Lighting.
"I needed the job to help supplement the income, what little bit there was, at home," she said. "It was just something I thought about doing, so I just called every day. I think they hired me just to get me off the phone."
Beam has also stayed with the same route for almost all of these years along Irwin Bridge Road and the neighborhoods near Bonds Lake. Though the road never changes, Beam said it is like a new job every school year and she looks forward to seeing new students.
Also, over the years Beam said she has been able to drive the third generation of families to school.
"I try not to miss a day. I think of my children," she said. "We have good subs, don't misunderstand me, but I know my children, I know their habits, and I hate to (not be there). I want to be there every morning, if I can."
She told a story of a new pre-K student she was picking up this year. The mother was hesitant to leave her son at the regular bus stop down the street. After talking with the mother, Beam told her she would pick up the boy at his driveway.
"I like a good relationship with parents and knowing where they stand, and I let them know where I stand," she said. "And it's always worked out."
A roster of all drivers is posted by a door at the bus barn and Beam's name is at the top signifying her status as the most tenured driver.
The position has it's perks. She gets the pick of the new school buses — she was the first to have air conditioning.
Her bus has an automatic transmission, and the door operates by a push of a button instead of a manual control.
Now, her children are out of the house and Albert runs a barber shop and is working part time at Cowan Hardware after his retirement from Lithonia Lighting. Beam said retiring from her route has not entered her mind and she hopes to give the school system "another 10 or 20 years." For her, it's the best job she's ever had even if it's the only job she's ever had.
"It's just something to do, and I think that's good for anybody wanting to be active," she said. "I see a lot of people leave a job or retire and just sit back and don't do anything. I enjoy my job and look forward to coming to work everyday."