Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Toast for Willie

Reading through my blog posts over the past three years has me in a nostalgic, contemplative and amused mood. I once wondered how my readers who are road veterans could tell I was so green when I started writing here. Now I know.

Passing by the "rookie table" in the bullpen these days, I often chuckle at the stories they tell. While the adventures described seem amazing to them, it's easy to remember being just where they are. First, they congregate far away from the extra board table, as if veterans are intimidating. You know how it is, when you're new to something you tend to associate with the comforting familiarity of those wearing similar shoes to your own. It's a tad intimidating to venture away from that table and from those with whom you were trained. As the miles click by, you meet operators on the road who are kind and helpful. Some aren't much senior than you, and your circle begins to widen. Eventually you feel more comfortable with your brothers and sisters. Then, you come across a hardened old-timer who won't even acknowledge you when greeted at a break room. There are some operators who don't speak to trainees or newbies or even those they have never met. Reality bites in every vocation, especially in a seniority-driven career.

Willie Jack, veteran of nearly 40 years.
Occasionally, you meet a veteran who goes out of his/her way to help others, offer advice and extend a friendly hand when you're feeling isolated. One of my favorite veterans here is Willie Jack. He's earned so many Safe Driving Awards they keep having to create new levels to honor his impeccable credentials. For almost 40 years he's graced this city with his calm, quiet, friendly service as a bus operator. A true gentleman who comes from a family known for exemplary community service, he's so humble he prefers to keep his accomplishments on the down-low. When I first met him, my Line Trainer introduced him as "our finest, most decorated operator". Willie's reaction? "Oh come on now Steve, I'm not that good!" Yet, he most certainly is that good. About six months ago, a local television station featured him in a news story because he locked up his bus and ran out to help a blind elderly lady cross a busy street (See: Willie Jack Good Deed). This attention embarrassed him, most likely because being kind is simply his nature. Back then, our transit agency had created "Gold Master Operator" just for him, but now they've had to up the ante as he recently became the first "Platinum Master Operator".

His daughter is a good friend of mine, but I didn't immediately make the connection. I should have, because she's a lot like him (a bit more ornery perhaps, but a sweet potato nonetheless). Jenelle was just a few classes ahead of me, and for a few signups I unknowingly picked her old routes. She gave me great pointers and let me know who the regular riders were. Just like her dad, she was (and still is!) eager to help when many wouldn't even look at me, let alone speak.

Just like others who are intelligent, kind and truly caring, Willie is humble and soft-spoken. While I'm sure he's a force to be reckoned with when somebody acts up on his bus, he's also one of the most beloved operators we have. Passengers who know him sing his praises. Fellow operators love and respect him. I don't know him as well as I'd like to. Every time I've been invited to join a family gathering, work or other obligations have intervened. Someday soon, I look forward to sitting down and getting to know this remarkably decent gentleman.

All good things come to pass, and this summer is Willie's last as a bus operator. He's retiring, leaving behind a family of fellow operators who will truly miss him. Surely, I'm but one of hundreds, probably thousands, who aspire to honor his legacy.

Roll easy, Mr. Jack. We're sorry to see you go, but you've earned a long and happy retirement. Congratulations, kudos and may the Lord always bless you and yours with the best life has to offer.


  1. Well done, Willie Jack! Congratulations on your retirement, and many happy returns!

  2. Congrats!!! You leave a level of service we all should aspire to!!!! have a wonderful retirement and don't be a stranger to our system!!!