About Mr. Witt’s School Bus
The image of the school bus is iconic in American culture. Long and rectangular, multi-windowed, painted cheerful yellow or bold orange, with starkly official black lines, numbered and emblazoned front and back with the school system represented, the school bus evokes varying responses to observers. For some, it is nostalgia. Memories of traveling to school with friends, laughter, singing, holding hands with your first sweetheart in the back seat, a long and tiresome trek home in the late afternoon, rattling down the highways late at night after an “away” game. For others, sight of the school bus rounding a corner stirs up youthful anxieties: dreading a test, meeting up with the school yard bully, a struggle to fit in, the humiliation of motion sickness amid diesel fumes. Each person with even the briefest history of traveling by school bus growing up has his or her own story to tell. Much depends upon when in the past ninety years or so the traveler first boarded, and from what location.
This story is about how an early school bus driver developed and led what amounted to a mobile social agency in a corner of rural Virginia between the late 1920s and the mid-1950s. The symbol of this community was a succession of three orange school buses that traversed the narrow roads between the tiny towns of Pamplin, Hixburg, and Hurtsville, Virginia. At the heart of the community was one bus owner and driver, DeWitt Talmadge Goin. Born in 1895 to a farming family in Appomattox County, Virginia, Goin grew into a young adult faced with a series of personal catastrophes, ranging from losing the family farm, struggling and finally prevailing through that experience only to lose his young, beautiful wife and their farm. He was rebuilding yet again, with a new wife and more children when he appeared before the Appomattox County School Board in 1928 as a prospective school bus driver.
Life experience had taught him that farming income would never provide security. Presented and introduced to the gathering by the chairman of the school board himself, Goin was quickly granted the position and arrangements were made for him to purchase a small, wood-sided bus from another, more established driver. While a number of school districts around the United States owned their school buses and paid drivers a salary, Appomattox County was not in 1928 among those. School bus drivers were thus required to purchase and maintain their bus, receiving a somewhat higher salary than drivers who did not own their buses.
And so DeWitt Goin began his thirty-plus year career as a rural school bus driver. His timing was perfect for such an opportunity, as the United States enacted a number of educational reforms during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Key among these was the transporting of students to consolidated schools, rather than requiring rural children to walk or ride a school wagon to a community one-room schoolhouse. There were a number of practical, and political, reasons for the reforms, which will be discussed in a later section of the book.
Perhaps unknowingly, Goin and some of his fellow school bus drivers played the not insignificant role of community leader. There is much evidence from secondary and primary sources to suggest that the early public school buses, led by their drivers, functioned essentially as rolling social agencies. This will come as no surprise to those who lived in rural communities during the years in question. For others, born later, a telling of the various tales of compassion and community solidarity expressed by DeWitt Goin, his passengers, neighbors, and local business owners, is a testament to how those qualities are not as often expressed in society today. Indeed, some readers may conclude that society has much to learn from the cultural mores from the not-so-distant past. There is also action, drama, humor, and not a few surprising moments in the pages to follow.
When I began the research for this work seven years ago, I had no clue as to what types of sources would be available. Certainly, an abundance of primary sources were possible, and in the early months of the project I was fortunate, along with dedicated assistance from family members, to reach out to some of the school children and adolescents who boarded “Mr. Witt’s” school bus. Their oral and written testimonies serve as the core of my research. Other useful and enlightening primary sources include the minutes from Appomattox County School Board meetings between the years of 1925 and 1955, photographs, and newspaper articles. Secondary sources are few, but notably helpful, including journal articles on the subject, both contemporary to the period and historiographically based. The period considered was a lively one in American history. The post-WWI era established the United States as a world power for the first time. Leadership was now expected from a population still largely rural, and largely uneducated or under educated. That government at all levels was keen to improve educational opportunities, including transportation, is evident in local school board records around the country, including those of Appomattox County, and will be discussed in a later chapter.
Finally, there was the motivation to explore the legend of DeWitt Goin. I grew up hearing of his storied compassion, kindly nature, and the general consensus that he was a beloved figure. More than six hundred attended his funeral in 1962. Amongst the diverse demographic interviewed for this project, there was not one voice attesting to anything in Goin’s character that would contradict the legend. This book is, in part, a tribute to his life and contributions to his community. The larger point intended herein, is that despite the isolation of the rural region under consideration, an imagined, created community, was constructed by the participants, and led by a gentle farmer, for the benefit of the whole.
Excerpt from Chapter 1, Mr. Witt’s School Bus
Drops of rain fell from the rim of his old brown fedora and into Dewitt Goin’s face and shirt front. It was early May, and the spring rains had already caused plenty of trouble on the dirt Appomattox County roads he traversed in the bus five days a week. He crossed the graveled driveway outside his newly built home, the cuffs of his trousers dampened with the puddled water, opened the bus door and stepped in to the front, away from the wooden, heavily windowed passenger portion and into the driver’s seat. Turning the key, the new engine purred, sighing in gratitude as he switched on the cabin heater. He touched fingers to his brow and rubbed his forehead, concerned – even nervous, though he would not let that show – about what might happen that evening at the school board meeting. Certain things had to change if he was to keep his bus route.
The windshield wipers slammed back and forth across the glass and the headlamps gleamed into the gray mist. Fog wove tendrils around the now warm bus chassis and spread in thick banks over the fields to either side. DeWitt took his foot off the clutch and eased his vehicle up the driveway and into the main road, heading to Hurtsville, where his route began. He was proud of the bus, having just purchased it from a builder down in Newport News the previous October. It was pricey, sixty-five dollars a month for the next two years, but his long route – the longest in the county – and the perpetual bad road conditions demanded a vehicle more modern than the little Model T chassis wagon contraption he’d bought from a friend two years ago when he finally was awarded his own bus route. The extra money running a school bus route came in more than handy; Dewitt was a farmer with a wife and six children, the youngest, little Katie, born only one monthearlier. Even if crops failed in a given year, he could still pay the bills and keep food on the table. Like most Virginia farmers of his time and for generations before, DeWitt grew acres of tobacco every year. Labor-intensive and delicate almost to a fault, prey to insects, worms, and weather, it was annually risked by many because the pay off at the end of the year, when the harvested, smoked, stripped, and tied crop would generally bring in such a sum that a family could almost live on alone till the next crop sold. Almost. The investment of the new bus was a good one, he figured. A guaranteed paycheck each month was rare in rural Virginia. And yet, between the payments, the cost to run it, the maintenance and the dangers presented on the rugged roads, eighty dollars a month was not enough.
He was losing money at this rate, and had no choice but to approach the board and ask for a raise. Plenty of bus drivers did so, though few were granted their wish. On this particular May morning in 1932, though, he hoped that the bus would make it out and down the steep hill that led to the bridge; and if the bridge over the Appomattox River was no more than a little bit wet, on toHixburg. No guarantees there; the bridge regularly flooded and that would mean no school that day for his passengers. But, if all was clear, he’d then head to the little community of Hollywood, then up the muddy hills to Hurtsville, pick up student – and regularly, adult – passengers, backtrack past the house to pick up his own children, again swing by Hixburg to meet students who had missed his first go round, and then on to the final destination, the bustling railroad village of Pamplin, picking up children and even adults along the way, and that the bus would keep rolling through the slick, red mud. His first passengers each morning were the little Webb girls, Lizzie and Cassie.
He could see their small forms through the rain as the bus approached. Next came the Marshall children. It was spring and fairly warm, and so young Mattie Marshall did not clutch a newly baked Irish potato in her hands for warmth. They all greeted him, “Good morning, Mr. Witt,” in their children’s voices. Then it was on to Hurtsville, and finally on to Pamplin City.
DOUBLE EDGE DOWN UNDER
In the doldrums of my mid-thirties, I ran away and lived a strange, fantastical life in Australia. Would you?
Excerpt: “…It was six p.m. and my driver was picking me up at eight. The hasp on my small black case creaked open and I lifted the lid. The case was still new, and about the same size as a small red suitcase I had as a child, the one where I hid dime store makeup from the ever-prying eyes of my pious mother. This new case, the black one, was also a ruse in its own way. Packed with care and inspected every evening before going out to work, it, too, contained, among other things, cosmetics. Lipstick, blush, eyeliner shared the space with tools of my newest trade: tube of lube, a sleek, golden phallic, dental dams (which I never used, they were a little absurd), body wash, baby wipes, a sea sponge (though I wouldn’t need that tonight) and, as I lifted them from the case to count, condom packages, strung together like lollipops. Good. All the essentials were in order. I tossed in a pack of gum, my mobile, and my wallet, and snapped the case shut. The case was a practical necessity and also a security blanket. I clung to it each evening as I knocked on the doors of hotel rooms, flats, and various other client abodes, from campers to mansions.”