WINONA, Minn. — Every weekday of the school year, 68-year-old Dean Wendler gets up at 4:30 a.m., drinks his coffee, eats some breakfast, and is soon off to pick up the first kid on his bus route through Nodine, Pickwick and Ridgeway — a journey that can sometimes stretch up to 190 miles a day.
It's a job he's been doing for 13 years. And it's one he thoroughly enjoys.
"For me, it gives me a reason to get up in the morning," he told the Winona Daily News . "The kids become your extended family."
Wendler is one of First Student's 56 bus drivers who serve the Winona area. The Daily News talked with Wendler in recognition School Bus Driver Appreciation Day being proclaimed in Minnesota by Gov. Mark Dayton.
For Wendler, getting to know the kids, the families — even the family dog — is a fulfilling part of the job.
"I've seen (some of) them grow up, graduate, get married and have kids," he said with a laugh. "You get invited to their graduation parties. They're just like my grandkids."
His care and connection for them can also make the hardest part of the job all the more stressful.
"The hardest part is when you have, like this year, all the ice," he said bluntly, adding that road conditions along his route can become pretty nerve-racking. "You realize that you have the most precious cargo in the world."
But overall, the positives outweigh the hardships.
There's the fun moments he gets to experience.
"(The kids) are so fun," he said. "Especially if you have kindergartners or first-graders. They sit right next to you and they ask you all kinds of questions."
Then there are the sentimental moments. Like when a kindergartner gets on the bus for the first day of school.
"The moms start crying and then (the kids) start crying," Wendler said, adding that it gets easier every time after that.
There's the straight up beautiful moments.
"I get to see sights that you folks who sleep in don't," he chuckled. "The sunrise, the wildlife, the deer, the eagles."
Like last week after an ice storm.
"The sun came up and it just sparkled," Wendler said. "It was just amazing."
And then there are the meaningful moments where he knows he made a difference, like when he told a high school student that her personality would be great for going into the medical field. And that's exactly what she pursued after high school.
"You can influence them like teachers do," he said. "We're on that bus together for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour a day, so there's time to spend together."
It's a job he cherishes through and through.
"They're really good kids," he said fondly. "You do the very best you can and make sure you're as safe as you can be."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Winona Daily News.