Metro Transit bus driver Jerry Olson has won nearly every award that the agency confers on its drivers for safe driving and customer service. Last year, he was named Minnesota Bus Operator of the Year by the Minnesota Public Transit Association.
But he's most proud of his 42 years of accident-free driving, which is believed to be the longest-running streak in the history of Metro Transit.
Olson, Metro Transit's longest-tenured driver, will retire Friday with not even a scratch on his record, an irony for the man who as a teenager earned the nickname "Crash" for smashing up a couple Chevys.
"In high school, I went through three or four cars, old junkers," Olson said. "It was kind of funny, but my friends thought it was a real joke when I went to the bus company. Here I was driving a bus."
On Wednesday, Operator 1504 made his final run by driving a Route 558 express route from Richfield to downtown Minneapolis. Olson started on Oct. 2, 1972, and was the third-longest serving employee at Metro Transit.
Olson credits his years of safe driving to making sure he left plenty of room for his bus and enough space between him and other vehicles to make decisions in the case of emergencies. He also makes sure he is visible and that he can see other drivers. There have been close calls over the years, but never an incident.
"His years of safe driving are an amazing accomplishment and set the standard for all other operators to follow," said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb. "While he will no longer be in the driver's seat, his character and skill will undoubtedly influence generations of operators to come. As an organization and as a region, we owe a great debt of gratitude to Jerry for his years of service."
Olson nearly spent his career as a cabdriver or a firefighter. He was driving for Blue and White Taxi when a customer stiffed him one night. He went to the customer's apartment off Selby Avenue and Dale Street in St. Paul to get it. It turned out the customer was a drug dealer, and Olson left without the fare. That's when his father suggested he find another line of work, Olson said.
He took a job at Metro Transit, but had also applied with the Minneapolis Fire Department. By the time the latter called, Olson had been driving for three years and decided to stay.
He drove the old Metro Transit's GMC clunkers that didn't have air-conditioning and required drivers to hand crank the overhead roller destination signs. He read paper maps when filling in on unfamiliar routes. And with no radios, when trouble came up, Olson had to park the bus, find a pay phone, put in a dime and call for help. Now everything is digital, and buses have phones.
He's had to kick off drunks while driving some of the toughest lines in the city, and once he chased and caught a purse snatcher. For the most part, however, Olson said he didn't have many problems.
His sterling driving record has garnered him 28 Outstanding Operator Awards and 41 consecutive Safe Operator Awards.
On Tuesday, Olson chauffeured the last of the more than 23 million passengers he's seen in the past four decades. Lamb, co-workers and family members were also on board for a final celebration.
"Everybody on the bus came to the front and said, 'Thank you,' " Olson said. "I'm the one who always said, 'Good morning' and 'Goodbye.' It feels a little weird, but it was a nice send-off."