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Tipping a Glass of Some Cool LeMon Aid

I was recently reminded of how little I know about school buses.

That stage was set for me when speaking with friend and mentor Charlie Gauthier, who retired as executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services in 2006 and before that was chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s school bus program. Charlie and I have enjoyed a great rapport over the years, as his knowledge of school buses and their history complements my journalistic curiosity. Plus, being the former Beltway Insider that he is, Charlie especially revels in good-naturedly ribbing me about a piece of nuance that the pages of STN missed or didn’t get quite right.

But when he emailed me the evening of March 8 and asked if we could talk the following day, then called the next afternoon, I knew something was wrong. He broke the sad news that Dr. Cal LeMon died in December from complications of the flu.

For those who don’t know the name, Cal LeMon rose to prominence in the industry over 25 years ago as an outspoken advocate for and teacher of school bus safety. Always charismatic and approachable, he had the knack when speaking with people, whether on stage or on a one-to-one basis, making each individual feel as if they were the most important person in the room.

Even before keynoting the 2007 STN EXPO Reno, Cal made his indelible mark by authoring “Unreported Miracles: What You Probably Don’t Know About Your Child’s School Bus.” Already an accomplished author, speaker, leadership consultant and owner of the firm Executive Enrichment, he found himself on the road to being a school bus champion at the request of the California Association of School Transportation Officials, for which he provided the first of many keynotes at an annual conference in the mid-1990s. The association board sought assistance on developing a public awareness campaign espousing the benefits and safety record of school buses, as the state faced the dire circumstances of large budget cuts to transportation funding.

Like most parents, Cal lacked knowledge of school bus safety before signing that first contract, one of many with CASTO and over the coming decades with the likes of STN, National Association of Pupil Transportation and dozens of other state associations. What stood out to him was that amid news headlines telling of tragedies involving school buses, what the media wasn’t reporting on was truly out of the ordinary,” as he wrote in “Unreported Miracles.” He was referring to the data point from NHTSA that school buses accounted for 0.005 student fatalities per every 1 million miles driven, a stat that more or less has remained the same since then.

Cal immersed himself in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, of which 33 specifically address school buses, and driver training requirements (a fascinating recounting of how they came to be and detailing them in “Unreported Miracles,” which is especially important reading material amid the current evolution of student transportation). One of the most interesting sections of his book occurs in the very first pages. He provides readers with a quiz on their knowledge of school bus safety. I recently took the quiz, and you’d think having reported on this industry for 20 years that I would have scored better than a seven out of 10.

My misses will all make sense to Charlie, who had grown especially close to Cal and his wife Kathy over the years. It was Kathy who last month finally summoned up the strength to call Charlie and break the news. Literally no one in the school bus industry knew of Cal’s sudden death, unless they happened to come across the obituary in the Springfield (Missouri) News-Ledger.

Cal LeMon remained at the top of his school bus and executive leadership training game until COVID-19 hit, which presented an opportunity for him to quietly exit public life as the effects of the Alzheimer’s disease took over. He had managed to function exceptionally well for years after the diagnosis, Kathy told me, continually speaking to school bus groups and beyond while also writing a monthly column, the aptly-named LeMon Aid, for School Transportation News in the aughts.

I thought of Cal from time to time, most recently regarding new Transportation Director Summit training ideas. Sadly, attendees won’t be able to better themselves by listening to him speak, and I now kick myself for not emailing him or picking up the phone. A deeply religious man—he held a doctorate in theology and was a chaplain for Harvard University at one point as well as a local pastor I know Cal forgives me. But like Charlie, he certainly would give me a good ribbing for missing those three quiz questions.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the March 2023 issue of School Transportation News.


Related: Author, Speaker LeMon Remembered for School Bus Safety Advocacy
Related: Dr. Cal LeMon to Speak at Massachusetts Association

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