It seems Rudy Rhodes knows everyone by name.
On a recent morning, Rhodes walked the corridors and garages inside the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District’s Transportation Department with personalized greetings for everyone within eyesight.
Known as “Mr. Rudy” to a variety of colleagues and co-workers, Rhodes’ cheerful demeanor radiated between stops near the department’s front door entrance through the building’s halls and garages all the way to the parking lot that holds the district’s fleet of school buses.
Not one person of the nearly dozen he encountered passed his sights without a salutation.
The effervescent Rhodes was recently awarded as the state of Missouri’s school bus driver of the year by the Missouri Association for Pupil Transportation. Rhodes was recognized by the association at the group’s annual state conference July 9 in Springfield.
Surely Rhodes made new friends at the convention feel like life-long pals.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Rhodes said of the honor. “It was a shocker because not only do we focus on safety but so many of the bus drivers throughout the state of Missouri demonstrate in their own communities that they are professionals and they have an opportunity to demonstrate their talent and skills at that level. And that’s every day.
“Like I explained (at the convention) parents put their trust in us to pick up safely, have a safe environment on the bus and drop them off safe. We must demonstrate that when no one is looking that we are doing the right thing.”
A bus driver for the district for the last five years, Rhodes retired from United Parcel Service five years ago before finding himself behind the wheel of a school bus. He said he would not trade his current occupation for anything in the world.
“I retired from UPS, but I did not see this second career coming,” Rhodes said. “You couldn’t have told me years ago when I was in the corporate world that I would be doing this. After I retired – after you catch up on your rest and sleep – you can only cut your grass, go to the store and pick up your mail so many times.”
A colleague once described Rhodes as calm and patient and makes everyone he comes in contact with feel special and important, adding Rhodes treats children with dignity and respect.
Sandra Larsen, the transportation department’s assistant director, nominated Rhodes for bus driver of the year based on those traits and his community-service activities, including the initiation of the Book Buddies program at Prairie View Elementary School.
Book Buddies is a volunteer program headed by Rhodes that helps children at the school enhance their reading skills. Along with four other drivers, Rhodes kicked off the program during the fall of 2012. The drivers spend about an hour per week at the school on a rotating basis.
“I think it’s because of his genuine caring of the students that he transports and his desire to help the kiddos in the community,” Larsen said of why she nominated Rhodes for the state-wide award. “He is just genuine. Anything that he can do to help kids succeed and be a part of the community, that’s what he wants to do.”
Rhodes added: “Our mission is to help students who need some help.”
Rhodes’ efforts have not gone unnoticed at Prairie View Elementary.
“Mr. Rhodes is a genuinely caring man – one who has great empathy and compassion for all people, especially kids,” said Amy Fennewald, the school’s principal. “As a bus driver, reading mentor and person overall, he exemplifies the belief that all the individuals within our community can have a great impact on student learning. He has made strong connections with both staff and students – always with a big smile and positive attitude.
“Having Mr. Rhodes and other bus drivers participate in the Book Buddies program provides the students the opportunity to get to know them in a different setting while working on a needed skill. This really demonstrates that all of the adults are working together to help the students reach their best potential.”
Rhodes serves as driver for three R-7 schools, including Lee’s Summit High School, Woodland and Prairie View elementaries. He joined the R-7 transportation department in 2009 after retiring from a 28-year career with UPS where he served as operations manager. Like most UPS employees, he started off with a route delivering packages.
“It’s exciting,” Rhodes said of driving a school bus. “We have fun on our bus. I tell everybody: ‘Mr Rudy; Bus 58.’ We have fun. It’s a lot of fun. I sing happy birthday to (the bus riders) on their birthdays and ask them to rate me from 1-10. I’m having fun with it right now.”