NEW ULM - Joni Mehlhop is known to several generations of New Ulm kids.
Practically everyone under the age of 44 who rode the school bus in town (when New Ulm had in-town busing) knows the driver of Bus 44.
Mehlhop, who drove New Ulm's school children for 38 years, on Thursday completed her last run.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
Joni Mehlhop is retiring after 38 years as a school bus driver for New Ulm Bus Lines. Many of those years were spent driving bus 44 pictured behind her. For more photos of this event go to cu.nujournal.com.
"She is top of the line," summed up Jody Wieland, a fellow long-term driver and friend. "She is the brightest gem in the box."
"If there was such a thing as a model bus driver, she would be it," concurred Dean Hosna, Mehlhop's boss.
"She is a good driver, she is dependable, she cares about the kids..."
Over the years, Hosna would often reassure the parents of kindergartners anxious over their first bus ride - simply by telling them it's Mehlhop driving the bus.
"Oh, yeah," parents would say, "we've heard of her."
Others, who had ridden the bus themselves, or had older children do so, would say, "we love Bus 44."
As years went by, Mehlhop grew into a beloved grandma figure, one everyone could be comfortable with and implicitly trust.
Hosna often told parents, "if this little one needs a grandma, they've got it."
At her retirement party Thursday, for which just about everyone showed up, Mehlhop was rather less vocal when asked to talk about herself.
She graduated from New Ulm High in 1963.
She applied for the bus driving job in the mid-70s, at the suggestion of a girl who had graduated with her.
The job was a good fit for a mother, allowing her to align her daily schedule, as well as summer and winter breaks, with those of her children.
More moms should be aware of this type of job, she said.
Mehlhop did do some extra summer work for New Ulm Bus Lines, washing the buses, often side by side with Wieland.
"A dirty job, but we had fun," the pair said, almost in unison.
Mehlhop drove a morning run, from 7 a.m. to 8:15, a "noon" run, from 10:30 to 12:10, and a "night" run, from 3 to 3:30.
After District 88 cut in-town busing about a dozen years ago to save money, in-town drivers such as Mehlhop drove shuttle buses and the smaller buses for children requiring special accommodation. Mehlhop drove kids with special needs on Bus 20.
Mehlhop says she really enjoyed the children and everyone she worked with: the lunch breaks the New Ulm Bus Lines garage, the cooking and baking she and friends did at the garage kitchen, the camaraderie...
The worst part of the job? The occasional (rare) fight on the bus.
What did she do then? "You try to settle it down," she simply said.
Mehlhop said she would not miss getting up at 5:30 in the morning to report to work, or negotiating icy roads.
A mother of two and a grandmother of 12, she is looking forward to retirement: moving to a lake home with her husband, fishing, just sleeping in...
She will be very much missed, by fellow drivers, students and families alike, Hosna and coworkers said.