'Skip' Pillow honored for alertness, humor
If you're a student in the Reynolds School District, you might hear the high-pitched sounds of a harmonica as you get on the yellow school bus someday.
If you do, and the driver is also wearing a fake red nose, you're about to take a ride with Thomas 'Skip' Pillow, 58, a four-year veteran of the school district's bus service.
'I just love the kids,' Pillow says, peppering his speech with frequent friendly use of the word 'dude!' 'They just bring so much joy.'
Magic bus driver
Pillow transports 60 students per day to and from Wilkes Elementary and H.B. Lee Middle schools as well as the Reynolds Learning Academy. He also drives students on field trips and to and from athletic contests. During the summer, he works as a truck driver for a fireworks company.
'I guess they're both hazardous material,' he says with a chuckle, referring to the students and fireworks.
Despite his carefree attitude, he makes it clear he doesn't play the harmonica when driving. In fact, he changes from a clown into a vigilant driver when the children are all aboard. For example, as he drops children off on the way home, he says he has to make sure all vehicles are stopped in the oncoming and passing lanes.
'Ninety percent of the people will stop,' he says, but there's sometimes someone trying to get past the bus as its yellow caution lights turn to red, so he makes sure the road is clear before allowing children to get off the bus and cross into the street.
'You've got little lives to protect,' he says. 'You're not hauling potatoes - you're hauling little kids.'
Driver of the Year
Pillow's dedication to his work recently earned him 'Honorable Mention' in the 'Children's Choice Best Bus Driver of the Year' contest sponsored by Thomas Built Buses, a North Carolina company that is a leading manufacturer of school buses.
To qualify for the honor, drivers were required to have a minimum of five years on the job; however, judges felt the nominations for two finalist entries, including Pillow, deserved honorable mentions.
Kathy Houck, the school district's transportation supervisor, said Pillow 'does a great job with students.
'We know there's a lot of great bus drivers around the country, so it's a real honor that he was selected,' she says.
Pillow has Cristina Tello, 11, a student at Woodland Elementary School, to thank for his award. Last year, she rode on the bus driven by Pillow, and told The Outlook, 'he did a good job on the bus, and he always took us home, and he always tries to have fun with us. All the kids liked him.'
In her essay Tello wrote, 'If kids are causing trouble he takes care of it. I sometimes think that he is like an eagle because eagles are always alert. And if you forget something, he gives it to you in the afternoon.'
She also wrote, 'If he won to be bus driver of the year he would cry and I would have faith in God that he might win.'
'I don't think I cried, but I got a little choked up,' Pillow says with a chuckle.
A Harley Davidson motorcycle enthusiast, Pillow has had a number of interesting jobs in his life, including playing a biker bank robber in the 2001 Bruce Willis movie 'Bandits' as well as spending time as a stock car racer. However, he acknowledges when he first started driving school children, he wasn't sure he had made the right decision.
'My first day on the job I saw 60 kids in the rearview mirror and went (he takes a deep breath and exhales) 'OK.' '
Over time, however, he says he learned to juggle the tasks of being driver as well as informal nurse, janitor, police officer and counselor.
The Reynolds School Board recognized Pillow for his efforts at its Nov. 9 meeting in Fairview City Hall. Pillow told the board he was accepting the award on behalf of all school bus drivers and added that he receives a more important reward daily.
'Seeing the relieved look on a mother's face when I deliver her child home safely is priceless,' he says. 'When she looks up and says 'Thank you,' I know I have done my job.'
To learn more about Thomas 'Skip' Pillow's award, visit thomasbus.