Laid off from Tektronix in 2006, Banks man settles on a second career in school transportation

by: PHOTO BY NANCY TOWNSLEY/THE NEWS-TIMES - School bus driver Ken Prickett wishes first-grader Taylor Rogers a good day as he disembarks bus No. 197 at Quatama Elementary in Hillsboro. Prickett, 62, lives in Banks.Most mornings, Ken Prickett can count on a pithy bit of wisdom from one of the 81 youngsters he ferries to Quatama Elementary School on Hillsboro School District bus No. 197.

“Oh, they tell me lots of things,” said Prickett, a Banks resident who’s been driving for the district for 18 months. “It’s pretty darned cute what they come up with.”

The Art Linkletter moments came fast and furious one recent Monday morning. Prickett made five stops between 7:15 and 7:40 a.m., when he pulled up outside the grade school on Northeast Campus Way to let his precious cargo off the bus during the second week of the 2012-13 school year.

“We got a new doggie, Mr. K,” announced one little girl in a sing-song voice as she flounced up the steps and found a seat in the second row of the bus. “He’s white, his name is Knuckles, and I love him!”

A bespectacled boy with a crew cut wished Prickett “a totally cool day” as he disembarked, dragging his Spider-Man backpack behind him.

“They’re so honest,” noted Prickett, who signed on with the district in a second-career move five years after being laid off from Washington Group International, where Tektronix had outsourced its facilities work.

“Last week, on the first day, I said ‘Welcome back!’ to one kid. He hopped up on the first step, sized me up, and said, ‘Wow, you got old!’ It cracked me up.”

From soldier to managerby: PHOTO BY NANCY TOWNSLEY/THE NEWS-TIMES - Hillsboro school bus drivers Ken Prickett and Bunny Bertsch perform pre-trip checks on their buses before leaving the parking lot in the early morning hours Sept. 17.

Soon after Prickett graduated with the Hillsboro High School Class of 1969 near the apex of the Vietnam War, he joined the Oregon National Guard, helping to protect U.S. interests at home while honing his skills in engineering operations and maintenance.

Then Prickett — who attends church in Forest Grove and is a regular vendor at the Wednesday farmers market there — started what would stretch into the better part of three decades as a manager for Tektronix Inc., the Beaverton electronics manufacturer that was a major player in the Silicon Forest boom of the late 1970s.

But when Prickett was 55, just before Danaher Corp. of Washington, D.C., bought Tek for $2.85 billion, he got pink-slipped. After that, things were tough for a while.

“I applied a lot of places and had a number of interviews, but it seemed like I was always a runner-up,” said Prickett, who lives with his wife, Bette, in a house the couple built at the height of his managerial career. “We weren’t really worried, because when I left Tek I got a pretty good severance. We had some savings.”

He finally landed a job at an asbestos abatement company in Damascus. But after a while, the daily two-hour commute started taking a toll. “It just didn’t work out,” he said.

Unemployment checks helped as the savings account declined, but as Prickett neared 60, he and Bette, who’d worked outside the home in the receiving warehouse at Tektronix before their children were born, had a heart-to-heart talk. After a lifetime of work and community service, he’d need to find something to buoy them financially.

“I was really frustrated at that point,” Ken said.

Their answer came in the form of another Hilhi grad. “I got to talking to a former classmate who drove a school bus,” Prickett noted. “She told me, 'You’d be great!’”

Three weeks of training with Pendleton-based Mid-Columbia Bus Co. taught Prickett the basics of driving a school bus and following protocol for its passengers. After he passed four tests he was eligible for his commercial driver license.

In March 2011, the Hillsboro district had a $15-an-hour job opening among its 140 regular drivers, and Prickett grabbed it. Since he's on fulltime, he drives about seven hours a day, four days a week on three main routes: one for Quatama, a second for Century High School and a third for junior high after-school activities.

“My health insurance starts in October,” Prickett said with a grin. “That was one of the primary reasons I looked at school district transportation.”

That, and Prickett has always had a heart for working with young people, whether at the United Church of Christ in Forest Grove, where he and Bette have served as volunteer youth leaders over the years, or attending school activities for their three grown children — Seth, Megan and Jennie — all alumni of Hillsboro’s Glencoe High School.

‘Really fortunate’

The never-a-dull-moment rhythm of driving a school bus has lit a fire in Prickett, who now looks forward to work each day.

“I just really enjoy kids, and I thought this might be fun,” said Prickett, now 62. “I was really fortunate.”

He leaves his house in Banks at 5:55 a.m. on weekday mornings with an insulated coffee mug in hand. Arriving at the bus barn on Southwest Walnut Street around 6:25, he checks in, gets his bus keys, greets other drivers in the roomy employee lounge and heads out to the parking lot.

His bus, one of the fleet’s newer models, is parked right next to driver Bunny Bertsch’s. A Hillsboro resident whose husband, Tim, also drives for the district, the petite blond has been a school bus driver since 2010.

“I started from scratch,” said Bertsch, who switched headlights on and off, noted fluid levels and tested tire pressure on her bus during a series of mandatory safety checks known as “pre-tripping.” Prickett did the same as the sun started to peek over the horizon in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 17.

“I retired from the phone company, and my husband and I do this because it puts us on the same schedule,” Bertsch noted.

Calling the district’s training program “great” and the team of drivers “really good people,” Bertsch said Prickett gained her respect right off.

“A lot of us retired from one place and came here,” she said. “Ken fit in perfectly.”

For Prickett, Monday through Thursday are long days in which his bus travels about 80 miles and he’s away from home until 6:30 p.m. On Friday he gets back to Banks around 5 p.m. because he’s not driving the activity route.

Between routes he relaxes in the drivers’ break room — where there’s “quite a solid Beavers-Ducks rivalry,” Prickett noted — or runs a couple quick errands, but it isn’t long until he’s on the clock again.

He said the crowd on the Century High bus, which usually numbers about 52 students, isn’t easier or more difficult to handle than the grade schoolers — the conversations are simply more evolved, turning to who’s dating who, last Friday’s football game or even national politics.

“I try to treat them like adults, and I think they appreciate that,” Prickett said of the ninth- through twelfth-graders. “I let them listen to the radio — I usually put on 107.5 or 105.9 — or they listen to their own music on their iPods.”

“I haven’t had any trouble with my high school kids,” he said. “By the time I started my route, two boys had been kicked off the bus for fighting the year before.

“I think they understand that the bus is here for them.”

For the younger set, Prickett used the first week of classes to stress a few basic rules: using “inside voices” while riding the bus, keeping one’s hands to oneself and general Golden Rule behavior, which he promotes at all times.

“The kindergarteners are just literally a bunch of jumping beans the first few days,” he said. “I have to keep reminding them to stay seated.”

Games drivers play

At railroad tracks and MAX train crossings, where school buses are required to come to a full stop, Prickett calls out “Marco!” His charges respond, in near unison, “Polo!” It’s one way he keeps them engaged and smiling.

When the younger sibling in a family he knows boards the bus without her older sister, Prickett is careful to ask if the second child is ill rather than late.

If he notices a boy seems sad upon boarding the bus, he’s sure to send him off to school with some encouraging words.

“If you’re going to drive a school bus, you have to enjoy kids,” Prickett said.

It also helps to be prompt, responsible, easygoing and conscientious. “You just about have to have eyes in the back of your head,” he noted. “I’m constantly checking my mirrors.”

On the trip back home, Prickett won’t let a kindergartener off the bus unless there’s a designated person — parent, guardian or babysitter — to receive them at their stop.

“Safety’s the number one thing you have to take care of,” he said.

For now, Prickett is having a ball driving his school bus. The schedule works for him because he’s a “morning person,” and no two days are alike, which suits him just fine.

And besides all that, he’s a softie for a good yarn spun by a child.

“I’ll do this until I get tired of it,” Prickett said. “I’m really happy I ran into this opportunity. The kids and their stories really get to you.”

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