Joe Tikalsky drove two bus routes every morning for the New Prague school district, starting with a stop before dawn at the corner of Wagner Way and Dakota Avenue in Elko New Market.

At week’s end, he always greeted the riders the same way: “It’s Friday. Whoopee!” Tikalsky would say.

But he wasn’t behind the wheel Friday when Bus No. 30 pulled up to the stop. After nearly 50 years driving the school bus, Tikalsky, 79, died early Wednesday when he was struck by a suspected distracted driver as he crossed a country road to get his newspaper.

Instead, the students were greeted by Tikalsky’s family — and baskets of Halloween candy.

Tikalsky’s daughter, Mary Jo Dorman, found 40 bags of fun-size candy bars Wednesday as she sorted through her father’s belongings. She immediately knew why they were there.

Dorman and her husband, Dan, her brothers Joe III and Greg Tikalsky, and five of Tikalsky’s grandchildren met before sunrise Friday and lugged two wicker baskets filled with candy onto the bus.

“This is your bus driver’s family,” Greg Tikalsky, a New Prague High School teacher and wrestling coach, said over the bus loudspeaker. “He had a lot of candy set aside that he wanted to get to you guys today. We wanted to make sure it happened.”

As the bus navigated cul-de-sacs and bounced along bumpy dirt roads, the Tikalsky family shared stories and welcomed the same from as many of Joe Tikalsky’s final group of riders as they could.

One girl told Dorman that Tikalsky gave her a big candy bar after her grandfather died last year. “He became my friend. He always looked out for me,” the girl said.

The bus radio played local AM station KCHK, whose polka music is a Tikalsky family favorite. Grandson Jarek Tikalsky, 13, turned up the volume so the riders could hear as an announcer read Tikalsky’s obituary on the air.

“Survivors include wife Emmy and others,” the announcer said. “Again, this is the death and funeral notice for Joe Tikalsky.”

‘Keep this going’

There were plenty of hugs for the family along the route from school staff and parents. Grief also visited them. Greg Tikalsky choked up while addressing the students over the loudspeaker. Tears welled in Jarek’s eyes when classmates hugged him as they got off the bus. Dorman broke down during the obituary.

But they also made room for laughter, as when they gathered between routes at Lau’s Czech Bakery in downtown New Prague. There, Tikalsky’s three children imitated his habit of loudly clinking his spoon as he mixed his morning coffee — a noise that often woke them and, they suspect, wasn’t all that accidental.

Elementary school students on the second route were less shy about accepting candy. One child grabbed a fistful of sweets out of a basket in stride as he made his way to his seat. The “It’s Friday. Whoopee!” chants also grew louder along the route as Dan Dorman recorded the events on his phone.

“You’ve got to keep this going every Friday until you graduate,” Dorman told the kids.

A girl at another stop shared a handwritten note, which Tikalsky’s grandson Matt Dorman read aloud: “Even though Joe’s not down here with us, he will always be in our hearts. He would always say, ‘You have really blue eyes like my wife.’ He would call us doll and tootsie.”

For Joe Tikalsky III, the names brought back memories of his father’s way with children while he was a passenger himself.

“I was having flashbacks to 1970,” he said later.

‘Joe we miss you’

As the bus unloaded at Eagle View Elementary School, Mary Jo Dorman noticed that some kids in the back of the bus wrote “Joe we miss you” in the condensation on the windows.

“Thank you for all those good stories,” she told one child. “You made my day, honey.”

More notes, and even an early Christmas card, waited at the school. A classroom full of kids waved from the second floor before the family left.

“That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced,” granddaughter Sylvie Tikalsky said. “I think we should try it every Halloween.”

As substitute driver Stan Tuma drove the bus back to the garage, Greg Tikalsky and his brother reflected on the morning. A top-10 life experience, he said. “I could see why Dad loved that route.”