By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
Pauline “Polly” Swader was kind and caring by nature.
Her parents, Ester and Lucille Odum Gaines, raised her to be a hardworking, independent woman and, in 1962, Polly was looking for work when she responded to a job listing for bus drivers. The then 31-year-old mother of five had no idea when she was offered a job with Rutherford County Schools that following her death — 57 years later on March 29, 2019 — she would be remembered as a trailblazing pioneer.
After all, Polly was only trying to put food on the table for her family.
In the process, she became one of the first two African American women hired to drive a bus for the school district and the first African American woman to be awarded a bus contract.
Rutherford County Schools uses an owner-operator contract system to provide bus service for students.
From 1962 until 2013, Polly was in possession of several bus contracts that she ultimately transferred to her son Henry, including the historic agreement for bus No. 62.
“To give that number up, I really didn’t want to,” said her son Henry, who voluntarily terminated the contract for No. 62 and one other route this past summer. “It was very hard for me to do that because I know that she had been there from the beginning with that number. It was very emotional.”
Henry’s wife Debra added, “I wanted to swap the number with another one of our routes.”
After consulting with the Rutherford County Schools’ transportation department, the proposed switch proved to be more difficult than Debra or Henry imagined.
“We talked and it was just hard for us to see somebody else with that number,” said Debra, who could no longer hold back her emotions and began crying. “I couldn’t hear on the radio, someone saying, ‘62.’ That would have been very hard for me cause that’s where I started.”
“Just sitting here thinking about it,” Henry said, “it brings tears to my eyes because my mother loved what she was doing at the time.”
Debra agreed, and added, “She was 62.”
The transportation department felt the same as the Swader family and went so far as to recommend approval from the School Board to officially retire No. 62. They did and the route was subsequently reassigned as bus No. 288.
Last week, the transportation department dispatched 287 buses on the first day of the 2020 – 2021 school year. For the first time in 58 years, bus No. 62 was not one of them.
“I realized my mother was a pioneer,” Henry said, “but she mostly was just trying to take care of us.”