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School bus driver retires after 40 years

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For the past 40 years Gene Wuebben has been a constant figure in the lives of students who rode the bus to East Catholic in Bow Valley, as well as those who shared the ride to other area schools.

Last month, he retired his set of school bus keys, and now the parish, school and community at large will be honoring him Dec. 6.

"All through my school years, he was my bus driver," said Mary Klug, who is now head teacher at East Catholic School. "He was for a lot of adults around here.

"He's just so special to the kids. He was that friendly, familiar face they all looked forward to seeing," said Klug. "He became concerned about each of the kids, and it became kind of a ministry for him."

For some young people, riding the bus to and from school can be a challenge.

"I was very fortunate to have had very good children. I enjoyed the kids," Wuebben said. "We got along fine."

Wuebben, who graduated from East Catholic and is a member of Holy Family Parish in Bow Valley, started driving the bus when his children were in school at East Catholic. He and his wife, Rosemary, have seven adult children.

"They rode the bus with me," he said.

Getting and keeping bus drivers is often a challenge for schools, rural and urban. He said he recognized this and knew he could help.

"I had a feed hauling and custom hay baling business," he explained. "Driving the bus was definitely something I could do to help the school keep everything going. It was my part of trying to help."

The route for East Catholic includes four towns and three parishes - St. James; Bow Valley - Holy Family (St. Peter and Paul); St. Helena - Holy Family (Immaculate Conception); and Wynot - Holy Family (Sacred Heart); plus a sister school - West Catholic in Fordyce, explained Klug. Wuebben also drives the afternoon kindergarten route to Fordyce for East and West Catholic students.

Klug said Wuebben has done more than just drive the bus.

"A field trip wasn't just a field trip because he knows the land and stories associated with it," she said. "He was a tour guide and interacted with the kids."

He spoke to the students about points of interest and offered history or explained its technology - and sometimes both. Students on a zoo field trip learned how grain elevators work. If their travels took them past the house made from Styrofoam, he would ask if anyone could tell what made this home different from those around it. He also explained how the hills by some roads came from the road-building process.

"I just shared things that I knew were there," he said.

The students showed their appreciation, Rosemary Wuebben said.

"The kids always included him in their field trip lunches. He would come home and tell me about it. He would feel like a little kid that day," she said.

This mutual appreciation also helped Wuebben when he was diagnosed with bone cancer nine years ago.

"I felt the bus driving kept him going," his wife said. "We've been retired 14 years and he's happy that he could keep going."

Students, such as Emily Paltz, an eighth-grader at Cedar Catholic in Hartington, said they appreciated his stories, his humor and the way he got them home safely.

"He's funny and likes to tease us," said Paltz. "When it was really cold, he got us home even though it was snowing really hard. You could count on him.

"I'm going to miss him. He's a great bus driver. He always said hi and goodbye. According to my dad, he's been doing that ever since he was in school," Paltz said.

When Wuebben hears that he'll be missed, he can empathize. He said he already misses the kids.

"I never really looked forward to retirement. I enjoy the kids too much," he said, adding, "I'm just a little person in the community. I didn't think I would be noticed that much."

The Dec. 6 school reception and open house will give people the opportunity to wish Wuebben a happy retirement. The reception, starting around 3 p.m., is scheduled after East and West Catholic's Christmas concert at Immaculate Conception Church in St. Helena.

A public open house will be held between 4 and 6 p.m. the same day at Immaculate Conception Parish Center.

"When you think of the alumni, the number of kids who rode on the bus with him ... just having the same person there for so long ... he became a staple for our school," said Klug. "We just wanted to give everyone a chance to say goodbye."

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