There isn’t much that Alan Zuk hasn’t done for the Berne-Knox-Westerlo (BKW) Central School District and his community over the past several decades. With a work ethic he most likely honed on his family’s dairy farm and a degree in business management from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, Zuk has worn many hats.
Now, in his 70s, he is hanging up that hat. Sort of.
“Alan has been a driver, sub driver, supervisor, and was also a NYSDMV Certified 19-A Examiner and a NYSED School Bus Driver Instructor during those years,” said Amy Santandrea, the district’s current director of pupil transportation. “Recently, Alan and his wife sold their home in Berne, and are moving about 30-minutes away, so he’ll no longer be able to drive for us. That is a big loss for the school and the community. Fifty-plus years in any job is amazing, but it’s very uncommon in pupil transportation.”
Few people would realize Zuk’s age when speaking with him. His voice, and enthusiasm for the industry suggest that he’s a much younger man. True to form, he isn’t retiring from something, he’s retiring to do something else.
Zuk explained his introduction to pupil transportation came from his father, who drove a bus for BKW in addition to running the family dairy farm. “On Saturday mornings, I’d tag along when he’d go wash his bus and get it ready for the next week. When he took extra work like a sports trip or late run, I’d do the milking,” he recalled. “Back then, the pay was terrible. I think that he made $3 for a late run that covered the entire district. After college, my first real job was a brief stint selling insurance, but after I’d sold to all of my friends and family that sort of faded out.”
Zuk liked farming but thought that he didn’t want it to be his career. His father suggested that he drive a bus until he decided what he really wanted to do. That was in 1971. “Just like now, they needed drivers, and I had my own route which was nice,” said Zuk. “Not too long after I started, the supervisor left and my father encouraged me to apply. Out of three applicants, I was chosen for the role which was, in June of 1972, called the transportation coordinator.”
Big Changes Throughout His Career
“Probably the biggest single change I saw in my career was with special needs transportation,” Zuk observed. “Back when I started, everything in the district, which is rural Albany County, was a 60-passenger big bus. There was no specialized transportation or parochial school transportation. I don’t really know what the special needs children did then. Sadly, I believe many of them were institutionalized. I do remember that we had two children who were physically challenged, and their transportation was contracted out. The need for special needs transportation exploded when the Americans with Disabilities Act became law.”
He said he remembers sitting in a staff meeting with the school principals and the superintendent. “It was the middle of the school year and we were to start providing transportation for students who went to an out of district program. I pointed out that we didn’t have any small vehicles. The elementary school principal said, ‘the law doesn’t care.’”
The district began to purchase smaller vehicles, which Zuk said a Department of Transportation inspector would laugh at today. One vehicle was an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with a raised roof and glass panels.
“That car would fly if you weren’t careful,” Zuk recalled.
Zuk also saw the first wheelchair lift vehicles arrive at the district. They were essentially vans with a hydraulic lift. “As the need for this type of transportation grew, we just couldn’t buy vehicles fast enough.”
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Back then neighboring schools helped each other out. “It was quite common to borrow buses back and forth, whether it was for a day or a week, whatever was needed. It was simply a matter of calling our insurance carriers with the VIN numbers,” Zuk said. “One August, we had a van we were retiring, but a neighboring district asked if we had any vans that we didn’t need any more. We told them that we had one that was pretty used up, but we’d give it to them. Their mechanics worked on that van until it would pass [inspection], and they used it the entire school year. Then they gave it back and we used it another year.”
Like many in the pupil transportation industry, Zuk has almost always worked a part-time job in addition to his school responsibilities. In the 1980’s he drove a milk truck. After passing the milk receiver’s written test, Zuk picked up milk from dairy farms and delivered it to various processing plants, where it became cheese or yogurt. He’s also been a courier with a Board of Cooperative Educational Services, a town justice, a town supervisor, and a firefighter. “I’m currently the president of the fire company, which is a much easier job than when I was fire chief. The fire chief spends a lot of time doing paperwork. Being president requires much less time.”
Zuk’s early years were the era of land lines. School bus drivers had to be independent thinkers. “If the bus broke down, the driver would send a couple kids to a house to use the phone, or the driver would flag someone down. A bus driver had to be able to handle whatever came up,” Zuk said. “I remember getting the first cordless phone at the garage. That was real freedom. Not everything was better in the old days. The industry’s ability to communicate instantly is much better. The buses more powerful, and are all automatic, with power steering, air doors, and air-ride seats. The driver’s seat used to be just a shortened version of the student’s seats.”
During most of his “retirement” after serving as transportation supervisor, Zuk has been a substitute school bus driver.
“After I retired in 2008, my replacement only lasted three weeks, so I wound up as supervisor again. But I’d already taken the part-time courier job. The courier position wasn’t every day, but even so, sometimes I was running the operation from the phone, with the help of my clerk,” Zuk recalled. “That went on from about September to April. Another time a couple of years later, the job was vacant again. That time, I split the job with another retired supervisor from an adjoining district. I think we did that about two months at the end of the school year. Eventually I became town justice and gave up the courier job, but I’ve subbed almost every day for the past 10 or 12 years. Once I drove a route for the entire year because that driver was out sick.”
In June, Zuk made his last school bus run.
“That was kind of cool because it was the same area I did my very first route in back in 1972,” he recalled.