Karen Stephens drives her last school bus route in Sleepy Eye (well, she might sub)

Deb Moldaschel
The Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch

In 1976, when her daughter Shannon started school, Karen Stephens took a job driving the Head Start bus for Minnesota Valley Action Council. On May 25, 2021, Karen drove her final school bus route in Sleepy Eye, after 44 school years on the road with kids. Anyway it was her last regular bus route. “I told them I would sub sometimes,” she said.

 “I drove five years for Head Start, then in the fall of 1981 I went to work for Warren Marti, who owned the Sleepy Eye school bus company at that time,” said Karen. “By the next fall, Marti had sold the bus company to the Regan family. I drove school bus and did office work for Tom Regan for the next 22 years.”

When the Regans sold the bus company to Tim and Dave Schieffert in 2004, Stephens stayed with her driving position and spent the last 16 years driving for the Sleepy Eye Bus Lines.

When we met at S.E. Coffee Company for an interview this week, Karen’s husband Roger came along (they have more time to hang out together now.) 

Roger retired from his position with Sleepy Eye Public Utilities in 2006. A few years later, Karen talked him into driving school bus also. “He was my first bus driving student,” she said. (Yes, she instructed new bus drivers for several years.)

Karen mentioned the late Eunice Sandhoefner, who also drove Sleepy Eye school buses for many years, as a role model of sorts. Eunice drove until she was 85 (just the little bus around town, Eunice always said.) Karen decided to end her bus driving career as a much younger woman—but still several years past the age when retirement might have beckoned.

Karen Stephens drove her final bus route for Sleepy Eye Bus Lines on May 25—the last day of school at St. Mary’s.  Stephens is pictured as she dropped off children at Lisa Schmitz Childcare. Presenting her with flowers to commemorate her retirement are Reagan Cook, Elizabeth Fischer and Evelynn Maurer.

Why did she drive school bus for so long?

“I loved the kids,” she said. “Especially the little ones.”

Karen’s bus driving time took her all around the countryside and all around town. In addition to bringing country kids to town, she’s been driving the preschool bus in town and many trips shuttling high school students from St. Mary’s to take specialized classes at Public School.

Karen claims she was a strict bus driver and knew the kids and parents appreciated that.

“One time I was sick for several days and an older man drove my route,” she said. “When I came back to work, one little girl [who had been a bit of troublemaker on the bus] got right in my face and told me I better never do that again! Another girl wrote me a letter telling me all the things that were happening on the bus while I was not driving.”

On her last day of driving, Lisa Schmitz and her childcare kids surprised Karen with a bouquet of flowers. Lisa shared a few pictures with the Herald-Dispatch and said, “Karen is greatly appreciated by so many families of young children for her friendliness and for keeping our children safe and on schedule.”

Karen said she certainly won’t miss driving a school bus in snowstorms. “Do you remember December of 1996? [I did remember.] There was not a full day of school, it was late starts, early outs, and snow days all month.”

She will miss the children but, “I’m friends with many former bus riders on Facebook,” she said.

Besides having more time to pester Roger, Karen said she is perfectly happy with her bus-free days so far. She’d like to go to Duluth to see the Glensheen Mansion, but doesn’t have a hankering for a lot of long distance traveling. Shannon lives in Sauk Centre and her children are scattered around the state—mostly good “day trips” for Karen and Roger.

Karen’s family has planned a retirement party for her this Saturday. She said they pretty much had it all planned before they thought of asking her if it would be okay. It was okay and Karen expects to see family, friends, coworkers, and bus riders.