YUBA CITY, Calif. — There are few people who can say they still drive their first car, but Phil Gardner can. His 1927 Model T Ford gets around just as well as he does, but this restored jalopy is not his regular ride. Gardner drives something much bigger and brighter.
"I was 20 years old when I started driving a private school bus in San Diego,” says Mr. Gardner. The Yuba City Unified bus driver just turned 90 years old. which makes him the oldest licensed school bus driver in California.
For 70 years Gardner has safely picked up and dropped off kids all over California, and been in every driving condition from the busy streets of southern California to the snowy backroads of Plumas County.
In 1966, Yuba City Unified hired him to drive and repair buses and that’s where he still drives today.
"I retired in 1994. This is what I am doing for retirement,” says Gardner.
Not only does Phil drive the bus, but he used to be a licensed safety instructor and it may come as no surprise that California Highway Patrol gave him an A+ on his latest certification.
“Phil is a legend. He is a very good school bus driver,” says CHP officer Jeff Larson. "I can attest to his skills because I recently re-certified Mr. Gardner."
You don't get a safety record like Phil's without a few ground rules. "I have very simple rules for the kids. Sit down, shut up hang on, we're gone,” says Gardner.
These days Phil is a substitute driver for Meridian Elementary. In fact, he's the only driver because Meridian only has 48 kids in the student body. The kids here have really taken a liking to Gardner, and Gardner has taken a liking to his riders.
His career has spanned 70 years, three generations of riders, and a whole lot of goodbyes, Gardner says, adding “I have hauled these kids’ parents and their grandparents."
Phil Gardner’s watched a lot of kids grow up in the mirrors of his bus, but more importantly driving the bus helped him grow up.
“When I retired from Yuba City Unified, I saw so many janitors and yard keepers go home and sit on their butts and watch the TV," he says. "Three years later they were in the cemetery. I found out that if I could keep my mind challenged, I could live longer and stay more active."