GARDINER — When Barbara Astbury was a little girl, she went to school on a horse-drawn carriage, with her feet in a bucket of sand to keep warm in the winter.
Then, she took a panel truck, later switching to her father’s car.
It wasn’t until 4th grade she would take a school bus, unknowing at the time the impact it would have on her later in life.
Now, after 50 years of driving a school bus, Astbury, 83, has decidedits time to retire.
“It’s a different world,” she said. “I don’t know if I like the other one better, but it was much less complicated.”
Astbury was celebrated Tuesday by the Maine School Administrative 11 transportation team, where she has worked her whole career, for her accomplishment. They hosted a barbeque for her and invited her coworkers, along with former students she drove to school, some were from multiple generations.
Astbury started driving buses sort of by accident, she said.
“I was between employment and considered going to a Bible college in a year,” she said. “But I loved to drive and I had you know, an epiphany.”
Up to that point, she had never driven a bus. When she went to apply for the job, the transportation manager at the time asked her what the “largest” vehicle she had driven was — Astbury said her pickup truck with the horse trailer tailing behind.
The manager took her on a drive through the parking lot, showed her the bus gears and told her she would be bringing the bus home with her. Astbury made room in her driveway and took the bus home.
“I think of all of the rules and regulations and everything you have to do now and the bus radios and all of the safety features, none of which we had, and we got the kids home and safe,” she said. “By today’s standards, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Her love for driving is what made her stick with the job for so long.
“When I used to do orientation for Kindergarten and then pre-Kindergarten, I started asking how many parents I drove — I always get a few hands,” Astbury said.
Shanna Gagnon Curtis, along with her three daughters, all rode on Astbury’s bus.
Curtis lives in the same family home in which she grew up, and said Astbury’s route has stayed the same since she was a child at Helen Thompson Elementary School.
“She runs a tight ship,” Curtis said. “She’s a very nice lady. I was big on reading and I would hang out and read. I was the first stop and the last stop, so I spent a lot of time on the bus. But I’ve gotten to know her more now that I’m older.”
Curtis’ daughter, Lexi, 10, recalled a time where a student threw a mitten onto her bench and she threw it back to the student, all while on Astbury’s bus.
“She said, ‘Hands out of the aisle,’” Lexi said, with Curtis adding, “Lexi got to know Barbara well.”
Karen Guilmette graduated from high school in 2002 and had Astbury as her bus driver from when she was in pre-k. Now, her daughter Isabella Williams, a freshman at Gardiner Area High School, has Astbury as a bus driver.
Guilmette lives next to the home in which she grew up as a child.
“Typically when my daughter is waiting for the bus and it’s late, she says, ‘It must be the new guy,’” Guilmette said. “Barbara is always on time.”
Astbury said in her retirement, she plans on finishing a book she started writing.
She originally planned for the plot to be about her 50 years as a bus driver, but then started to focus on her experience with transportation to school when she was a young girl.
“If I had any idea it would be a 50-year career, I would have taken better notes,” she said.