Warren County Public Schools’ bus drivers gathered Thursday at South Warren High School to honor one of their own – James “Monty” Monroe Austin – who recently lost his battle with COVID-19 after contracting the disease only three weeks ago.
He was 73 years old.
On full display outside the high school, which Austin drove for along with Rich Pond Elementary School, a line of buses stretched more than 20 deep.
Escorted by a fleet of motorcycles, Austin’s casket made its way down Nashville Road en route to burial in Franklin.
Austin’s bus – No. 2020 – followed close behind, stopping briefly as hundreds of students held signs with messages like “you are in our thoughts” and “We loved and appreciated you.”
As the funeral procession passed, bus drivers from across the district lit up their lights as a show of respect for the driver, who drove for the high school almost since its opening in 2010.
Forest Walters, the area supervisor for the South Warren High School feeder system, described Austin as a “consummate Southern gentleman” who was as gracious as he was generous.
Walters remembered how Austin once bought lunch for four other drivers one day. “He didn’t think twice,” Walters said.
After contracting COVID-19 about three weeks ago, Walters said, Austin’s health took a turn for the worse and he ultimately lost his battle with the disease.
Walters described Austin as a spry 73-year-old, recalling how the man played a full 18 holes of golf – eschewing a cart and walking the whole course – one day before he endured open-heart surgery last year.
For more than an hour Thursday, bus drivers across the district held a solemn vigil in the noon-day heat as they waited for the procession to pass.
Michael Clayton, a driver who is shouldering five routes for WCPS amid a serious driver shortage, said he’s never had a job where the co-workers were as closely knit.
“They’re not co-workers. They’re family,” he said.
Driving a school bus amid a deadly pandemic hasn’t been easy, but Clayton seems undaunted.
“I absolutely love driving the bus,” he said, adding it’s helped him pay the bills in his semi-retirement.
With about 30 open driver positions in the district, there’s a lot on Clayton and the other drivers’ shoulders.
Clayton said safety often has to come before scheduling. The drivers are doing the best they can to get students to school, he said.
“We get there when we get there,” he said.
Devonna Driver trained Austin when he first trained for the job in 2011, she said.
“As you can see today, we’ve lost a very important part of us,” said Driver, an administrator in the school district’s transportation department.
“He was a genuine, kind-hearted man,” Driver said of Austin.
Driver asked for the community’s patience amid ongoing driver shortages the transportation department is facing.
‘We’re getting all the children that need a ride that we can,” Driver said. “We’re down 30-plus people. It’s a battle we’ve never faced.”
– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @NewsByAaron or visit bgdailynews.com.