Through her long battle with cancer, Penny Gourley stuck with school bus driving as long as she could. This summer marked the one-year anniversary of her death.
Gregory Dybas, a former school bus driver and trainer at Community Unit School District 300 in Algonquin, Illinois, informed School Transportation News of Gourley and her battle with breast cancer that ended on July 1, 2021. She never let it dampen her enthusiasm for transporting students.
“She inspired many others in her field,” Dybas relayed. “We all miss her terribly.”
Gourley also served as a substitute driver for other districts and was an Illinois state-certified third-party, new-driver tester and trainer. Her school bus base will soon install two memory benches in her honor.
Born on Sept. 7, 1965, Gourley graduated from Hempville High School in Huntsville, Texas. She attended Louisiana College, where she studied criminal justice. Later, she studied real estate at Truman College in Illinois. Before joining Community Unit 300, she worked as a collections representative and security guard.
Then she found her true calling — her passion, really — when she entered the field of school bus driving for Durham School Services in 2008. The daily interaction with children and parents, the satisfaction of providing an essential function, bringing kids safely from home to school and back, every day, and to countless sports, theatrical and other special events on school field trips and weekends — gave her a sense of belonging, Dybas explained, stating that she was in the right place for her life’s work.
Gourley decided to share her professional satisfaction with female students at her schools and with other women. She actively encouraged girls and young women for many years, including her relatives and the daughters of her friends, to consider entering the field of school transportation, becoming bus drivers, driver trainers and testers, and to obtain their Commercial Driver Licenses (CDLs), Dybas said.
Meanwhile, Amanda Burklow, the transportation manager for Durham School Services Community USD 300 contract recalled Penny as being one of the operation’s best trainers as well as one of the best drivers. “She was my ‘right-hand man’ for a long time, and I truly miss her every single day,” Burklow continued. “I spent the last two weeks of her journey here on Earth with her, so this topic is still very difficult for me to talk about. In fact, many of our colleagues at Durham cannot even talk about Penny, she is so strongly missed. She was truly a wonder-woman, to be remembered. Durham Bus Company and Community District 300 are both very proud of Penny’s dedication and service as a role model in her community.”
Burklow added that Gourley was and remains one of the most beautiful and wonderful people she knows.
“She deserved better in this life than what she was given, and she faced this ugly thing called cancer with such grace and power,” she added. “She was a very giving person, and it is her money that was given to her driver family for the two memorial benches, so that bus drivers could have a needed rest between routes. It was not a gift from the school district or the bus company – it was Penny’s gift to the drivers she worked with. She was always thinking of others.”
After Gourley had a mastectomy, she returned to work as soon as possible. She continued until two months before she died so she could finish the 2020-2021 school year. “She was not one to sit still.”
Gourley’s daughter Charli Hatfield shared her mother was a huge animal-rights advocate, and rescued many animals — ducks, birds, cats and others near her home town of Lake Geneva, Illinois. Hatfield said she is also an animal rights advocate, which strongly influenced her mother.
Gourley enjoyed empowering and encouraging other women.
“There [are] a lot of women who are stuck in the ‘stay-at-home mom’ syndrome, but Penny knew that women could have a career, and gain their CDL,” Burklow explained. “It’s a pretty difficult thing to do. People don’t realize how hard it is to get the CDL and then your own school bus. And many people think it’s a man’s job, so it’s wonderful that she introduced women to the feeling of empowerment.
Burklow said Gourley told many women they could do it and brought them into the field.
Gourley made Burklow the beneficiary of her insurance policies so she could use the funds as she saw fit. In addition to paying for the memorial benches, Bourklow said she donated money to charities including animal rescues in Gourley’s honor.
Additionally, a male church member made Gourley a “praying shawl,” which is used to transmit comfort and healing to the wearer. The greeting card that came with the shawl was inscribed with “Shalom,” the Jewish salutation for peace. Gourley had never heard the word before. Burklow relayed that Gourley was so excited and happy to learn the meaning as well as to wear the beautiful shawl. “So, we took a picture of it, Penny with her shawl, and posted it at her funeral service and sent copies to church members,” Burklow added, noting that a lot of Gourley’s money was donated to the church in her memory.
“And we donated a lot to pet rescue services and for the benches for the bus drivers, because that was Penny: she always gives back,” Burklow said. “She’s that kind of person. She was always giving of herself, always wanting to help other people regardless of herself. She was a giving, giving, giving person.”
Amanda recalled Gourley’s favorite phrase, “even in her dying days, were, ‘I got this! You got this! You can do it!’ She was always encouraging others, up to her last day.”
Burklow said dozens of young women and girls were inspired by Penny Gourley to enter the formerly “man’s field” of school bus driving and school district transportation. She influenced everyone she knew.
In addition to her daughter, Gouley is survived by sister Laura (Anthony) Cusumano.