Understandably, veteran and award-winning Akron Metro RTA bus driver Sheryl Symons is having a difficult time putting it in park.
“It’s breaking my heart,” an emotional Symons said about her recent retirement after almost 34 years on the bus. They were all fun-filled years. It was the best job in the world!
“But medically I have no choice but to retire,” she said, referencing injuries she suffered in a couple of falls at home.
Yet, what a ride it’s been.
Symons, 65, had worked a series of odd jobs before landing her dream job at Metro. “I was looking for a job where I could make enough money to raise two kids,” the Cuyahoga Falls resident said. “And I was riding the bus a lot and putting in applications when one of the drivers said ‘You should put in an application with Metro.’ That was in 1978.”
Symons said she got hired and “bells were ringing and lights were going off in my head! I was that excited!”
What made her think she could drive a bus?
“I always told myself there was nothing I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it,” she said. Proof of that was when a friend was moving and needed to rent a big van. “Every one of her friends was afraid to drive it. But her mother, remembering me saying that I could do anything, told her to call me,” Symons delighted in sharing. “I drove that van to Galion. Wow! It was terrific!”
Symons was a huge fan of the late Bob Pfaff, Metro RTA’s director who died July 2, and recalled the superior training he gave. “He said, ‘There are bus drivers and there are bus operators. If you want to be a bus operator you have to take care of your people [passengers] and they will take care of you.’ I took that to heart. It really meant something to me.”
Because Symons took such great care of people, she made thousands of friends in the process.
“I’ve gone to so many weddings and birthday parties and sadly funerals too, for people I met on the bus,” Symons said.
Life on the bus became for her and her passengers a huge metaphor for life with its hills to climb, unexpected detours and sweet surprises on the journey. Poetry in motion, some might call it.
All Symons knows is that when hardships lurked around the corner, she took great pride in trying to steer her passengers, who often confided in her, in the right direction.
For that she’s been rewarded a thousand times over, she said.
“I’ve even been mentioned at weddings where I’ve introduced the bride and the groom,” she noted.
“One of the best stories has to do with a young woman in a wheelchair who used to ride SCAT to her job at Edwin Shaw. She was beautiful and had been hurt in an accident. We talked all the time … She lived with her parents way out somewhere and she wanted so much to meet someone. But she never went anywhere except to work.
“I told her she needed to move. I even helped her find a place — a handicapped-accessible place — in Cuyahoga Falls and I helped her move. It’s amazing that her parents didn’t kill me. … Anyway, there was a wonderful young man I met on the bus who had lost his leg in the service … I introduced them, they hit it off and the next thing I knew I was getting an invitation to their wedding, where I was toasted.”
“So you see I’ve had just incredible experiences,” continued Symons, who met and married a great guy herself, John Symons. Rounding out the family are her children: Sonia Walls, Jeffery Baughman and John Symons II, all of Cuyahoga Falls.
In 2002, Symons was tapped along with four other Metro drivers and more from all over the country to go to Utah for a month and drive for the Olympics.
“There was just never anything I couldn’t handle,” Symons reminisced.
“I got knocked down by a troubled kid once on the bus. Before I could get up the passengers were holding him down and a cop, who saw that I had pulled over and hit the flashers, got on … Like Bob Pfaff said, ‘If you take care of your people they will take care of you.’ And they did.”
Symons — whose last route was Tallmadge Hill/Grant Firestone — is proud of being named by the Ohio Department of Transportation in 2003 as Best Operator of the Year for Large Urban Transit Systems. The award recognizes a driver’s dedication to passengers, timeliness on routes, and going above and beyond the job’s requirement.
A huge honor, yes.
Even so, what Symons said she treasures most are the positive responses she got from “my people” when she decorated her bus for holidays. “I did it at Easter and would pass out Easter candy,” she said. She did the same thing at Halloween, including driving in costume.
At Christmas, she would pull out all the stops, decorating the bus for a solid week with battery-operated lighted trees, garland and something on every window. “And I had music … Some people would come to just ride the bus at Christmas time.”
She recalled a few Goodyear executives she would pick up on her last trip down East Market Street who would help take the Christmas decorations down and box them up as she drove. That was a huge help, she said, given that before she was assigned a permanent bus, she would decorate whatever bus she had each morning and clear the decorations at quitting time.
Her school-aged grandson Josh got up at 3 each morning during the Christmas season to help decorate her bus. Then he would leave exhausted to catch another bus to his school.
These days, Symons is battling with all her might to get better following surgery and rehab from a broken hip. She is home, albeit in a hospital bed with a walker and a wheelchair.
“I’ll never be able to load a wheelchair [onto the bus] again. And that’s part of the job,” she lamented.
What she’s most looking forward to is being able to get back on the bus — as a passenger this time — and the chance to be able to say goodbye to all of her friends, those she took care of and those who took care of her.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.