Whoever was ever a passenger on his school bus mourns the loss of William Harold Gentry, better known as “Willie.” This in spite of the fact he used to scare the living crap out of us.
“You were one of his favorites if you sat on the steps or got kicked off the bus,” reads his obituary in this morning’s Tribune. What? Try telling that to my two classmates who were jettisoned one dark and stormy night on Soldier Summit—in a raging blizzard! Whatever happened to those two kids? Who knows? All I remember is that for the remainder of the trip everyone was very well behaved.
On Willie’s bus, there were some hard and fast rules. Rule number one was no horseplay. If you goofed off in any way, you were ordered to sit on the cold metal steps facing the door. For the remainder of the trip, you were to remain silent. One snigger and those doors would swing open and out you went.
Whenever the bus came to a stop, you were to remain absolutely still. One little peep, a cough, a whisper, a snicker, and next thing you knew, you were on the steps facing the swinging doors and impending oblivion.
Another rule: The bus leaves on time. If you’re late, the bus won’t be waiting for you. The rule applied to teachers as well as students. I remember once the perennially tardy choral director Dorothy Brown didn’t make it to the bus stop on time and was left stranded in Logan. Too bad, so sad. Teachers, parents, coaches, principals, school superintendents—it didn’t matter who you were, you weren’t about to pull rank on bus driver Willie.
His obit offers some insights into Willie’s world view. He was born in 1928 in the rough and tumble mining camp of Royal. He’d worked in the coal mines and served as a U.S. Marine during the Korean conflict. Ah, the Marines! Willie would have made one helluva drill sergeant. He had that bearing, that gunfighter gaze. Even today, the memory of those piercing eyes, reflected in the bus’s rear view mirror, sends chills through me.
Fact is, Willie was only looking out for our welfare. Safety was his overriding concern, especially on those field trips over the mountain on highway 6, reputedly one of the ten most dangerous roads in the nation. There were the blind curves and hairpin turns of Price Canyon, the narrow Castle Gate tunnel, numerous railroad crossings, oncoming coal trucks, rock slides in the Red Narrows. Through it all, Willie was determined to get us all home safely; that is, except for Mrs. Brown and those two kids he booted out at Soldier Summit.
Many years later, I mustered the courage to interview Willie for a newspaper article. I found him to be a surprisingly nice guy. “But what about those two kids you dropped off on Solder Summit?” I wondered. “Surely, you must have sent someone back to rescue them.”
William Gentry just smiled. I got the impression it was one of his fondest memories.