Coach, teacher, sponsor, referee and bus driver: my first job in public education

Apr 21, 2020 By Randy Tucker

When I started my teaching career back in 1980, I didn't realize it, but Niobrara County was the cheapest school district in the entire state.

Lusk was a great place to teach, a great place to coach, and a nice little town.

But the school district's fiscal policies regarding teachers was anything but nice.

In most districts they paid your retirement. In Lusk you paid half.

They had one benefit they were proud of, a "tax option" that lowered our exposure by taking that half-retirement pay out of the check before you received it, saving a few bucks on your income tax.

There wasn't much to carve out of my check in those early days. I took home $788 a month after everything was deducted. My contract (before the tax option) paid $13,000 for six classes, with five different preps, along with football, basketball and track coaching. I was the student council sponsor, the Close-Up sponsor, the sophomore class sponsor and officiated all the home junior varsity girls games.

They did pay an extra $6 for officiating those basketball games. The non-teaching officials I worked with were paid $10 per game. I was never sure where the rationale behind that decision came from.

These were all annoyances. The biggest issue came with away games.

The district was so cheap that part of your "other duties as assigned" as a coach was to drive the team bus to away games.

Lusk is a lot like Dubois when it comes to travel. It is a long way before you can play anyone. Our big rival in those days was Lingle, a scant 57 miles away. We also played Saratoga, a little longer run at 470 miles round-trip.

The principal explained that I had four weeks after arriving for August football practice to get my bus-driving license. In reality I only had 10 days before school started. I wouldn't be able to take the driving test after classes and practice began.

In those days the Wyoming Department of Transportation had a special bus driving license called a "Class B"

Lusk has a highway department port of entry, as most towns near the border on major highways do. My friend Terry Griffith worked at the port of entry. He gave me the book to study, set up a time to take the written, and then the driving test. I came back early the next week.

The school required all coaches to take the test on a manual transmission, Blue Bird bus, with the driver's seat in front of the wheels. These flat-front buses are the standard today, but still had a lot of older buses with the engine and tires set ahead of the driver in those days.

If you've never driven a vehicle with the turning wheels behind you, it takes some adjustment. There is a sense of sliding as you turn that you have to get used to.

I passed the written and driving tests without any problems. I'd driven trucks hauling grain and hay since I was 15, and it was not that much different.

Football season was easy. Athletic director Dick Price had two boys playing football. Dick drove the football bus. Otherwise the district wouldn't have allowed him to go. Lusk had no personal days for teachers then, either, only eight sick days, all requiring a written release from a physician if you used them. Makes you feel warm knowing how much they trusted us, doesn't it?

Basketball was the same. Both of the Price boys were players, and Dad drove the "Tiger Bus." The Tiger Bus was a used Trailways bus with reclining seats, great legroom, and a restroom. Many school districts had those through the 1980s.

When track season rolled around, Dick coached golf. Both price boys were golfers. So I drove the track bus as the head coach. In another interesting twist, female coaches were not required to drive the bus.

The distances to track meets were only slightly less than those in basketball and football season. A typical Saturday track trip started at 5 a.m. with warming up the bus.

Lusk didn't have a track. Douglas was the closest school for a meet, at 54 miles. We also went to Gillette, Upton, Casper, Cheyenne, Guernsey and Yoder in Wyoming. We also made trips to Gering, Morrill and Bayard in Nebraska.

Waking up early, driving a minimum of 100 miles round trip with a bus full of kids. and sometimes triple that distance -- then coaching all day -- wasn't the safest way to transport a team. With just one assistant and 40 kids out for track, I was busy throughout the meet.

I usually ran a field event and had to time the running events as well.

The road home was long and tiring. The administrators responsible for the decision to put a coach behind the wheel on an 18-hour workday out in the sun never did it themselves.

Thankfully, I had no wrecks.

Close-Up sponsorship was another story. With 15 kids loaded at 3:30 a.m., we set out for the Cheyenne Central High School parking lot to join other schools on a chartered bus to the now-defunct Stapleton Airport in Denver. At 5 a.m., about three miles from the merger of U.S. Highway 85 and Interstate 25 north of Cheyenne, there was a loud knock from the engine followed by smoke pouring out. The engine threw a rod.

I walked two miles to the nearest houses, knocked on the door and asked to use their phone. The Laramie County School District quickly dispatched a bus, and we made the connection.

A replacement bus waited for me to drive the kids home the following Sunday.

I can't imagine any of these things going on today. It was a different era.

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