John Shackleford had not driven a school bus since 2004, but not long after the tragic Woodmore Elementary bus wreck he got an epiphany.
The 67-year-old grandfather says, "I was sitting at home watching TV when the Lord spoke to me, "I want you to take the Woodmore route."
Mr. Shackleford, who wound up buying a shiny new-looking, $80,000 Bluebird All-American bus, just completed his first year on the job, and he's looking forward to the next.
He was honored by the School Board on Thursday night for stepping up to a spot that might otherwise have been difficult to fill.
Board member Joe Wingate said Mr. Shackleford "didn't volunteer for the Woodmore route. He demanded the Woodmore route. He wanted to be there for those kids."
Mr. Shackleford said he went to the bus bid meeting and picked a number out of the hat. He got the fourth pick. When his turn quickly came and he chose Woodmore some of the other drivers were shocked. Only a few knew what he had in mind.
Next on his list was getting the best-looking bus he could find. He thought he had one in Knoxville, but when he was on his way to pick it up he got a call that it had been sold. There was another one that came open, but that one also found an unexpected buyer before he could get it.
Mr. Shackleford told a bus salesman in Kentucky just what he wanted. He was sitting at home at 10 o'clock at night - and with little time before the start of the school year - when there was a knock on the door. A woman handed him a set of keys and said, "Here's your new bus." She then left, getting a ride back home with her husband, who had followed in their car.
He said the bus did indeed fit the bill. It was an 84-passenger with the biggest engine they could find. It had dark tinted windows, a white roof and "all the accessories you can get." He made one addition - adding chrome to all the wheels. Then he installed another - LED lights after the high schoolers (he also does the Brainerd route) chose them unanimously over standard lights.
Mr. Shackleford was anxious to meet the kids, the parents and the grandparents. He wanted to do home visits, but that could not be arranged. Instead, he showed up for orientation and spent hours getting to know his new kids and their families.
The new driver installed discipline that had been missing on the bus, and he added love and affection for his young passengers. Each morning he greets each one with a Good Morning and their name. Each responds, though he said it took some as long as a month to warm up to him.
Especially the high schoolers are proud that they get to ride on the coolest bus in the system. He said the interior "still does not have a scratch on it" because of the pride they take in it.
In addition to the initial $80,000 outlay, he spent $2,000-$3,000 more jazzing it up with the chrome and other items. He pays $200 a month to park the expensive bus in a secure lot.
Still, he has no regrets that he stepped up to be the new driver for Bus 366.
And he plans to stay - at least until those who were on the bus that fateful day on Talley Road leave Woodmore. There were six from the Woodmore wreck on his bus this school year.
He said he told his kids as they got off the bus for the final time this year, "I'll see you next year. I'll be back."