Steve Van Galder of Van Galder Bus Co. dies at 66

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Frank Schultz
Friday, January 24, 2014

JANESVILLE—“Think like Steve!” proclaims a ball cap in the office of Van Galder Bus Co.

It's an office joke created by charter manager Shannon DeRemer, who would sometimes don the hat when talking to the boss.

Steve is Stephen R. Van Galder, who for decades ran the Janesville-based bus company, one of Janesville's best-known businesses. He died Thursday at 66.

The hat says something about Van Galder and his employees. He was serious about doing the job right, but he had a great sense of humor, employees said.

He also made a point of seeking employee input on decisions, even though he knew the business better than anyone, DeRemer said.

Van Galder would warm up the school buses' diesel engines each morning, and he drove   the rural routes in early-morning darkness to check road conditions on days when fog or snow made travel questionable, said Allen Fugate, the company's operations manager.

“He was like a dad to both of us,” DeRemer said, tears in her eyes. “… All of us would cut off our left arms for him.”

Van Galder also was dedicated to friends and family—his wife, Sue, the retired Craig High School teacher, and their children, Sara and Sam.

Steve always made time for his children's activities, whether it was Sam's golfing or Sara's equestrian competitions, which often involved road trips, Sara recalled.

“He was very supportive and caring, and he was always a cheerleader for Sam and I, no matter what we did,” Sara said.

But even on a recent family trip to Hawaii, Van Galder was on the phone, checking to see how the weather affected the school buses, Sara recalled.

“He loved that company, and I think if he had a chance, if he knew this was coming, he would have thanked (his employees) individually, and he would want them to know he was proud of them for what they're doing,” Sam said.

Steve's father, also named Sam, started the business with a cab and one school bus in 1947, Fugate said.

Steve and his older brother, Dave, worked there while growing up and eventually took over. Steve later became sole owner.

“He was a visionary in that business. He knew what they had to do to grow and prosper,” said Tom Wolfe, longtime friend, golf buddy and banker to Van Galder.

He was also a hands-on boss. Wolfe recalls Steve showing up for their regular breakfast meetings more than once with wounds on his head from working under a bus.

Steve's expansion efforts included buying coach buses for tours and later daily service to O'Hare International Airport. The routes expanded north to Madison and as far south as Chicago Midway International.

Steve sold the company to Coach USA in 1999 but stayed on as president.

It was the school buses—serving the community—that always were closest to his heart, Fugate said.

“He always put everybody else ahead of him. Everything was to please his wife or his kids or the company. Everything was to better something else,” Sam said.

Longtime friend Dave Johnson said Steve probably never retired because he needed somewhere to go after he got up at 3:30 a.m., which he did seven days a week.

Van Galder was probably as passionate about his company as he was about golf with his friends. He organized an annual golf outing to courses around the country. He always wanted to be in charge, Sam said.

And he always wanted to drive, Johnson said.

He was uncomfortable when anyone else took the wheel, so he became the designated driver, Johnson said.

Steve never drank to excess, ate healthful foods and exercised regularly, said Johnson, who ran or walked with his friend nearly every day for the past 35 years.

Steve had a history of heart problems, and it frustrated him that they kept recurring, even though he was faithful to his heart-health regimen, Johnson said.

Van Galder was lion-hearted when it came to sports. He was co-captain for the 1964-65 Janesville High School basketball team that shared the conference championship, and he was a lineman for the UW-Whitewater football team that lost the national title game in 1966.

As an adult, Van Galder was on teams that won city championships in flag football and basketball.

“He was as competitive a person as you'd ever want to meet, even in cribbage and euchre,” Wolfe said.

“But at the end of the day, he was the guy you wanted as a friend,” Johnson said.

He was a hard-charger in business, “but he did it ethically. You won't find a more ethical businessman,” Wolfe said.

As befits someone in the business of getting people to their destinations on time, he was a stickler for detail and could not abide tardiness, friends said.

Van Galder's generosity included providing free buses for the annual holiday lights tour, Johnson recalled.

“He just couldn't say no,” Johnson said.

But he wanted it kept quiet, Wolfe said.

That generosity extended to his employees. Van Galder would take over an office task or even the switchboard when a worker needed time off, and that paid off in loyalty from many longtime employees.

“It's something he's instilled in all of us. It's the culture of the company,” Fugate said.

For years, Steve spent much of his Thanksgiving weekends at O'Hare International. He loaded baggage.

It's the busiest day of the year, and he felt he had to help, Fugate said.

Steve's passion for the business could come off as gruff and intimidating, in a way that could scare a new employee, Fugate said.

“But underneath that—the biggest teddy bear you'll ever know,” DeRemer said.

Fugate felt compelled to think like Steve on the day he died. He sent a memo to the 170-plus employees in the boss' voice. It reads in part: “Keep it going. I didn't give my life to this place for you to let us down now.”

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