But Carey kept his cool and got his young passengers home, safe and sound.
That day will certainly live large in his memory when Carey ponders his 14-year career as a bus driver, the last 12 and a half in Lower Merion, where since 2008 he has ferried elementary, middle, and high school students to and from their homes and extracurricular activities.
When Carey, 70, decided that he’d retire at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, he never imagined that his last day on the job would be March 13 — the day the coronavirus forced the district to shift all its classes online. The switch has robbed him of the chance to say formal goodbyes to not just the students but their moms and dads.
“That is the difficult thing. I wanted to tell the youngsters and their parents what a pleasure it was to drive them,” Carey said. “A lot of the parents are so friendly, and I got to know them pretty well.”
Across the country, the coronavirus has robbed students of proms and graduations, sports seasons, and spring musicals. It’s easy to forget that the pandemic has also stolen from retiring teachers and support staff — often the backbone of a school — not just the chance to be formally thanked for their service but the ability to say goodbye to the kids and families they’ve come to know so well. And then, added Carey, there are also the colleagues whose sense of teamwork and pride help make a job satisfying.
“I will miss the camaraderie of my fellow bus drivers,” he said.
Carey’s work days began at 6 a.m., when he would leave his Upper Darby home to fetch his first group of passengers, the high school students. After dropping them at school, he would do the same with middle schoolers and then the elementary schoolers.
He’d finish his runs by 9:30 or so, then relax for a few hours before picking everyone up in the afternoon and getting them back to their families. On the days he’d drive students to after-school activities, he wouldn’t make it home until 7 p.m.
“He enjoyed the kids and what he did,” said Jill Carey, his daughter. “Even when he was off, he would go to some of their sporting events," often taking one of his grandsons to Lower Merion High’s basketball games.
While he embraced new transportation technology, he also hung on to the old. “He had a GPS system, but he also would get out his paper map and take practice runs before the school year, so he was sure where he was going,” his daughter said.
Driving a bus is difficult enough in ideal weather conditions, but the aforementioned storm became the biggest challenge of Carey’s his career.
“We were on a regular schedule, and the storm just got progressively worse as we went along, because it had started around 1 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “By the time we picked up the elementary school kids, we were way behind schedule.”
He knew that families and school staff would worry, so he called his daughter and asked her to arrange for updates to the district’s webpage as his runs unfolded.
“He kept checking in with me, and asked to let people know where he was and that he was going to drop the youngsters off at their door,” his daughter recalled. “He kept those kids calm.”
Carey didn’t get home that evening until 10.
When asked if that was his most difficult day, he replied, “It was my longest. There was a little bit of skidding going on, but if you take your time, you get through it."
Carey earned the praise of Richard Segal, the safety foreman for the Lower Merion School District’s transportation department.
“Walt Carey was a dedicated professional who took his job seriously and always remembered the precious cargo behind him,” Segal said in an email. “He served as an example to his younger colleagues and always had safety in mind.”
Segal talked about how well Carey drove, especially when taking students home once after-school activities and sports were completed
“These routes are challenging, not only because they’re often run after dark, but because the stops change depending on which students are on board,” Segal said. “Walt always displayed an abundance of patience — a requirement for bus drivers — and understood that kids will be kids. He was well-liked and will be missed by his managers, coworkers, and the students and families he served.”
In his prior career, Carey had been an audit manager for a computer service business. When the company folded, he had to reinvent himself and decided to train for a career as a bus driver. His first job was with the Haverford Township school district.
"At first I was a little tentative, but it is like anything else: After a while, you get used to doing it, driving in and out of traffic, and mainly watching out for other people on the road,” said Carey.
A year and a half later, he left Haverford for Lower Merion, where he has been ever since.
The one thing he won’t miss about the job is waking at 4:30 in the morning to begin his day.