BERLIN — The last day of school for Worcester County students marked the final day of a 64-year career for Berlin bus driver Irma Herbert.
Herbert, 84, retired last week as the longest serving school bus driver in Maryland.
“She’s one of a kind,” said Steve Price, director of bus transportation and safety for Worcester County Public schools. “We’re fortunate to have had her as long as we did. We wish her the best.”
Herbert, who’s spent her entire life on the street she grew up on, was hired to drive a bus for Worcester County Public Schools in 1952. With a father and two uncles who were bus drivers, taking the job offered by then-transportation supervisor Ben Nelson just seemed like the thing to do.
“It ran in the family,” Herbert said.
Though she made the decision to take the job easily enough, she had second thoughts when she got behind the wheel as the school system’s first female driver. At 19, she was driving a bus full of high school students just a few years younger than she was.
“I came home in tears,” she said. I didn’t know if I could do it.”
Herbert was determined though, and earned the respect of her teenage charges when she kicked five unruly students off the bus simultaneously.
“After that they settled down,” she said.
Herbert — who remembers that fuel cost 19 cents a gallon when she started driving — said she felt rich when she got her first month’s $340 paycheck. By that time, she realized she loved her job. In the decades since she’s never once considered another career.
“It was the children,” she said. “I enjoyed them. The little hugs and kisses made it all worthwhile.”
When she started, it was the high school students who tried her patience. These days, Herbert says the younger children are the ones who misbehave.
“Kids are different than they used to be,” she said. “Back then high school kids were the problem and the elementary school students were scared to open their mouths. Now it’s the opposite.”
Through the decades, Herbert has taken generation after generation to school. She retired driving the grandchildren of some of her former passengers to school.
“She treats them like she’d treat her own kids,” Price said. “That’s the best you can hope for in a bus contractor.”
At least three of the county’s current bus contractors rode Herbert’s bus to school when they were children. Price says she’s been a great example for the county’s other bus drivers. Making the decision to retire was difficult for her.
“Just to show you what kind of person she is—she wanted to know if she could call me on the first day of school because she knew she’d be sad,” Price said.
Dawn Holloway, treasurer of the Worcester County School Bus Contractors Association, says Herbert is known for her willingness to help her fellow drivers anytime they’ve had a problem.
“She’s a great lady,” she said. “We’re going to miss her.”
Herbert was honored with proclamations from local and state officials at a retirement dinner last week. Delegate Mary Beth Carozza was there to recognize the woman who once drove her to school.
“She’d forgotten where I picked her up but I remembered,” Herbert said. “It was the Pacific Avenue stop.”
Looking back, Herbert admits she’s seen a lot of changes during the past 60 years. She’s watched Ocean Pines grow from nothing into the county’s largest population center. She’s seen Ocean City expand from 15th Street all the way to the Delaware line. She was one of the drivers who bussed African American students to school when Worcester County’s facilities were integrated.
“It went very smooth,” she said.
For her, the hardest part of being a bus contractor has been dealing with the stress that comes with driving a vehicle filled with 50 children.
“You’re always tense,” she said, “waiting for something to happen with the kids or the traffic.”
Nevertheless, she’s loved the experience. A certificate proclaiming Herbert the best bus driver, given to her by a student in 2001, hangs above her kitchen table. She proudly wears the “64/57” necklace—signifying her 64 years of service on bus number 57—given to her by her fellow bus drivers.
While she’s looking forward to the rest and relaxation retirement will bring, Herbert knows she’ll miss her work.
“I’ve just loved it,” she said. “It’s my life.”