Dawn Distler has fond memories of driving a bus for the Metro Regional Transit Authority.
In fact, Distler — who took over Monday as the new executive director of the Akron-based bus company — calls it the coolest job she's ever had.
"As much as I love what I do now, being a bus operator is just awesome," she said. "You meet all kinds of people and you're kind of your own boss all day long. And nobody has a better office with all those windows."
Distler, 56, arrives in Akron following a more than four-year career running the public transportation agency in Knoxville, Tenn. Before that, she worked at the transit agency in Nashville.
She is well acquainted with Metro RTA and the Akron area. While she was born in New York, her family moved to Akron when she was about 2 and she grew up in Goodyear Heights. She remained here until taking a job in Nashville about 15 years ago.
Distler, who also worked as an operations manager and assistant director of customer services at Metro, developed her passion for public transportation in Akron and said she enjoyed the "family atmosphere." That made her want to return, in addition to being drawn back home.
"I believe in public transportation and the investment it brings to communities but I believe even more in everything Metro was and still is," she said. "I am excited to come back home and work alongside such a talented team. We're going to make this transit system the standard for midsized transit systems across the nation."
Under her leadership, the Knoxville agency received the 2017 Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award for small transit systems from the American Public Transportation Association.
Distler is the first permanent female executive director to lead the agency. She will oversee more than 400 employees and a $55 million annual operating budget. The agency board is expected to approve her contract outlining her salary and benefits Thursday.
She succeeds former executive director Richard Enty, who was fired earlier this year following complaints about his behavior and leadership. The agency also has been the subject of an ongoing Ohio Ethics Commission investigation. The probe involves a questionable financial relationship between Enty and former board member Saundra Foster.
Asked what she planned to do on her first day on the job, Distler replied: "I'm going to listen." She said she didn't come into the job with changes in mind.
"I want to hear what everyone thinks and believes is going on," she said. "Where they think we are and where they would like us to be. Then we will put a plan together and work with the board and our stakeholders to tweak that plan and implement it in the best way possible."
She spent part of her Monday meeting and shaking hands with employees. Sometimes, she was meeting workers for the first time. But there are plenty of familiar faces still around from when she worked at the agency. Even those who didn’t know her back then know it’s a homecoming for her.
“Welcome back,” driver Crystalynne Justers said as she greeted Distler.
Distler said it’s comforting to see so many people she remembers.
“For the most part, nobody has looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re back?’ Everybody has said, ‘Oh cool, you’re back,’” she said with a laugh. “You go into a new job and you don’t know anyone. It’s a little intimidating. So for here, it’s kind of like coming home to family.”
She and her wife, Janie Fazenbaker, haven’t chosen a place to live just yet. But wherever it is, there will be a bus stop close by.
Distler plans to ride the bus to work every day, just as she did in Knoxville.
“If I don’t use my product, nobody else is going to, or why should they, is the better question,” she said. “I also think it’s important to see things from the viewpoint of the passenger. The people who use our buses are our most important commodity and we need to see what they experience and go through what they experience.”
That’s especially important given the competition that public transportation faces from new challengers such as Uber and Lyft, not to mention personal vehicles and taxis.
"You do that by removing the stigma of riding a bus," Distler said. "We have to sell transit to folks. We have to think outside the box on how we partner with our stakeholders and competitors to provide transportation options within the region."
Public transportation is a vital service for the community, she said.
"It is a needed service just like police, fire, garbage pickup, and snow removal ...," Distler said. "Transit provides an equitable playing field for those who cannot drive or afford cars and it is a viable option for those who choose to not drive their cars every day. But it is also like a community all in its own right. I love diversity and I truly feel that public transportation provides a safe and diverse atmosphere that welcomes everyone.
"When the bus pulls up at a stop, the operator does not ask you who you are, where you are from, what religion or race you are, who do you love, who did you vote for ... they simply say good morning or afternoon, you sit in the same type seat as everyone else, you may hold a conversation with a county executive or a homeless gentleman; and as you exit the operator says 'have a nice day' and you go on your way. It's poetry in motion."
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.