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Maine bus driver retires after serving her community for half a century

Barbara Astbury worked as a bus driver for MSAD 11 for 50 years from 1971 to 2021 and says she has seen a lot of changes and students along the way.

GARDINER, Maine — Late Tuesday afternoon, a group of people young and old gathered at the school bus depot parking lot in Gardiner. Eager, smiling faces awaited the guest of honor -- a woman who has dedicated her life to the community and is now bidding a bittersweet farewell.

Barbara Astbury, who turns 83 years old next month, has been driving busses for MSAD 11 since 1971. For 50 years, she has become a familiar face a number of students and parents could plan on seeing every time a yellow bus pulled up to their driveway, marking the beginning of the end of a school day.

When asked why she decided to retire now, Astbury shrugged the question off, unsure of how to answer it. What she will say, though, is she has seen a lot of change during her time in the job.

"When we went out on those busses 50 years ago, you were a little entity all by yourself out there," Astbury exclaimed. "If you got yourself in a mess, you better figure out how to get out of it."

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For half a century, she has done that, donning a glittery tiara and retirement sash Tuesday to celebrate that accomplishment.  

"How many kids has she bussed? I mean, it's got to be tens of thousands of kids," Shanna Gagnon Curtis, a parent in MSAD 11, expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine. She says she grew up in West Gardiner and began riding on Barbara's bus in first grade, continuing through the end of her time taking the school bus. More recently, Barbara has bussed Curtis's kids to and from the classroom.

"I remember when my kids were starting to go to school, she drove up to the driveway -- and I did not know she was still driving the bus!" Curtis recalled.

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The impact Astbury has had on young members of the community is obvious and inspiring. When she arrived at the parking lot Tuesday, walking toward the crowd, a handful of her kids flocked around her, excited to chat and say farewell. 

"She's been my bus driver since pre-K, so I've just been with her all my life," said Lydia Gero, an eighth-grader in MSAD 11.

One key to success -- a good bus driver knows when to crack a joke or a smile and when to crack down on bad behavior.

"It's pretty funny when she just pulls over and is like, 'I could sit here all day', if someone's behaving bad," Gero laughed. 

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It's an important skill to have in a role like hers -- touching lives in a way many others never do.

"The children get on the bus, and they see the driver, and their eyes just light up -- and in the afternoon, you know, it's a, 'Bye, have a good afternoon' or a high five," said Gabe Dostie, the director of operations for MSAD 11, about the significance of bus drivers, noting during the pandemic, their role has been more important than ever -- adjusting schedules and bussing food to families when schools weren't open. 

Astbury says the door isn't completely closed on her time at MSAD 11. Substituting here and there could be in the cards.