When Therese Coogan began driving students to school for Van Galder Bus Company in late 1986, she didn’t plan to stay long.
She had three small children, and her husband, Micky, worked at General Motors.
“It was the perfect job for a mom,” Coogan recalled. “I remember doing my first route and thought I didn’t like it much.”
As the days went on, the children grew on her.
“I liked it more and more,” Coogan said. “You got to know the kids. … And here I am.”
After 37 years as a driver and then as assistant school bus dispatcher, she officially retires Friday.
“I’m having a real tough time with this,” Coogan said, “but I know it is time for me to be out.”
The COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person classes earlier this year, and she stopped coming into the office.
But the 70-year-old leaves behind a notable career that touched many lives while she worked in the background.
In some cases, she has either bused or planned for busing for three generations of students.
“It was fun,” Coogan said. “That’s what makes it hard now, knowing I won’t go back. Work was my home away from home.”
Each year, the company bused anywhere from 600 to 700 students who were on rural routes or had special needs.
Coogan organized the routes and figured out which children rode which bus.
“That is stuff I loved,” she said. “I talked to parents all the time.”
She knew the drivers and the children well and worked hard to solve challenges. If a child had a problem on a route, she tried putting the child on another route. If a route grew too large, she split it so buses were not crossing paths.
Because of her route work, she had no trouble locating streets.
“She knows the city of Janesville better than any other person I know,” said Steve Schroeder, Van Galder’s school bus manager. “She is always my go-to version of Janesville MapQuest.”
When Coogan saw a child’s name, she could see in her mind where the youngster lived and what school the child attended.
“When she put kids on a route,” Schroeder said, “she put them in the most efficient order so there was no backtracking.”
He called Coogan “an invaluable resource to me and the school bus drivers at Van Galder” because of her extensive knowledge of student transportation.
Schroeder said many special- needs children do not like riding the bus, so it is important to get them on and off as quickly as possible.
Coogan’s first concern was always making sure that the kids were taken care of on the bus and that the driver was a good fit, Schroeder said.
“She wanted them to get home safely and as quickly as possible,” he added. “She was always about the kids having a positive experience on the bus.”
Coogen also helped with daily motor coach trips.
“She would help with everything and anything,” Schroeder said. “This last year, we had her coming in at 5 a.m., but she was there at 4:30 a.m. She loved coming to work, and she did a good job of making sure people around her were successful, too.”
Al Fugate, Van Galder’s president and general manager, worked with Coogan for 25 years.
“The words consistent, reliable, dependable don’t really do justice to Therese,” he said. “She was such a stable part of our business. She was our rock through a lot of wild growth years and for some of our more turbulent times, like 9/11, when we didn’t know what the next day would bring.”
Fugate added: “We can’t thank her enough for her service over the years to the students of Janesville.”
Coogan has parting advice:
“I used to tell my kids when they were growing up, if you find something to do that you like, you never have to work,” she said. “I never felt as though I was working. The drivers used to make fun of me and said that my retirement home was down there at Van Galder.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux @gazettextra.com.