NEWTOWN – When Jim Tomassetti says that he’s seen it all as a bus driver, he’s not kidding. He began his career as a school bus driver 47 years ago, and when he starts talking about his experiences, the years flow by in an endless stream of entertaining remembrances and stories.
“My parents didn’t want me to be a driver, but I didn’t listen to them. All my friends were drivers,” says Tomassetti, who began driving a school bus at age 18 right after graduating in 1972 from Masuk High School in Monroe.
“I always knew I was going to be a bus driver,” he says, recalling a story that his mother told him. She said that when he was a young boy in Bridgeport, Tomassetti would become excited whenever he saw a city bus. “I guess I always had a thing for buses,” he adds.
When thinking back to his first days as a driver, Tomassetti becomes nostalgic. He started with the Dunn Bus Co. in Monroe, where he drove school buses for 10 years until the company went out of business. He recalls fondly driving Dodges with Ward bodies – “they had style, today they all look alike” – no power steering and no heat.
“It was all innocent,” he says of those early years. “So much has changed. The buses years ago, they made drivers out of you. I miss the shifting. You get spoiled with the automatic.”
Prior to driving a school bus in Newtown, Tomassetti drove in Easton and Trumbull, in addition to Monroe. He also drove a transit bus in Bridgeport for eight years during his off hours until he says “I couldn’t take it any longer.” One time while driving his city bus, he was assaulted by two men, one of who punched him in the face, knocking his glasses off. Bloodied, but not terribly injured, he completed his shift. Another time, a bank robber boarded his bus. The man had paid his fare, and no one knew he had just robbed a bank until police surrounded and boarded the bus to take the robber down.
“He robbed a bank and got on my bus, can you believe it?” Tomassetti says.
Driving a school bus was always the safer and better job, although it also had its challenges in the years when he first began driving. In addition to lacking heat and automatic transmissions, the buses also lacked radios. So, if a bus had a mechanical issue, the driver had to be a quick thinker and resourceful to get help and transport students safely to school.
“It was good, the responsibility,” he says, adding, “it was simpler times.”
When he first began driving in Newtown, he did so as an independent contractor. He owned and maintained his own bus, taking on the responsibility of having his bus inspected every year and fit for the road. In fact, all the buses in Newtown were operated by independent contractors until All-Star Transportation secured a town-wide contract seven years ago. After All-Star took over, Tomassetti joined its staff in Newtown.
His years of experience have taught him many lessons, especially when it comes to the care of the students he transports. He says he has more patience now when dealing with students. But he adds that when he tells his students to do something, he expects his orders to be followed and his students generally obey. Like many drivers, he also has built relationships with his parents. In fact, when he had hip replacement surgery this past summer, it was the mother of one of his students who drove to his hospital in Hartford to pick him up and take him home.
He says the worst day of his career was the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. He had two students that afternoon that he had to take home to Sandy Hook. To protect them, he had them lie down on the bus seats so that onlookers and the news media could not see them.
“I could not stop crying,” he said, explaining that he had to take time off after the shooting to recover.
Then, pausing to reflect further on the tragedy, he added, “I do love my kids.”