Miss Tilly gives up the wheel

Margaret Hurt
Special to The Black Mountain News

The mother of a toddler, Matilda “Tilly” Wilson needed a job that fit with her responsibilities as mother. A friend at church, Kathy Favrot, suggested she consider driving a bus for Buncombe County Schools’ Owen district.

That was 30 years ago. Little did “Miss Tilly,” as she is affectionately called, know that she would come to love driving a school bus and all the ways it has enriched her life. Come June 9, all of that changes when she retires.

Miss Tilly’s days begin early. At 5:30 a.m., she arrives at Black Mountain Primary to get bus 289 ready for the N.C. 9 route she travels daily. At 6:20 a.m., she picks up her first student. By 7:45 a.m., she drops 30 students off at the school.

For the next several hours, she performs custodial work at the school. At 2:20 p.m., she’s back on the bus to begin her afternoon route, dropping off kids and returning to the school about 4:45 p.m. each day.

Maddie Pomeroy, a first-grader, feels secure on Miss Tilly’s bus.

“When a student has a problem, they tell her and she tries to fix it,” Maddie said. Miss Tilly helps students find lost items, work out differences and behave better, the first-grader said. Maddie has ridden Miss Tilly’s bus almost daily since she started school.

“I will miss her kindness a lot,” Maddie said, “and I hope we will have another nice bus driver next year.”

During her first few years three decades ago, her route was from Owen High to a location near the current Buncombe County Schools administrative offices in Asheville. All of 4-foot-10, she weighed a mere 72 pounds. Her height forced crews to adjust her seat by moving it up and moving the switches down. The other drivers at the high school took bets she wouldn’t last more than a week. Now, Miss Tilly laughs at the memory.

She has driven the curvy N.C. 9 route since her earliest years, a route that travels through Broad River and brushes along Madison and McDowell counties. On a road tractor on which trailer accidents and stalls are not uncommon, it’s not surprising that she was so nervous that she cried the first time she drove it in a bus.

Soon, though, she came to love it. She claims to know every spot along the way.

Miss Tilly communicates frequently with the parents on her route, sending group text messages anytime there is a change in the bus schedule due to weather or other reasons. Likewise, she gets messages from parents of current and past riders about road conditions (three years ago a parent sent her a message at 3:30 a.m. advising her of a mudslide along the route). She’s received friendly greetings and reminders of all she means to the parents.

What makes it all so worthwhile to her, she said, are the many relationships she has formed with students and their family members.

“The people on my route have been wonderful to me, and the principals too. I just love them,” she said. She often receives expressions of their appreciation - cards, gift cards, flowers, homegrown vegetables and plenty of smiles and waves.

Miss Tilly got her name because so many staff members had her last name when she started the route. She suggested “Miss Tilly” to then-principal Jerry Green. The name stuck.

“Sure, there are ups and downs of driving a bus, and sometimes the kids are challenging,” she said. “But for the most part, they are well-behaved, and I love them like my own. They listen and cooperate well for me.”

She loves that she sees her students, present and former, all around town. She is proud to have been part of their lives. She is sad to end her time on the bus, but she believes it’s time to move on. She looks forward to spending more time with her 7-year-old granddaughter and quilting with her mother. She and her mother recently completed a quilt.

“She will surely be missed,” said Malorie McGinnis, Black Mountain Primary principal.