As the Newton County School System’s longest-tenured employees, bus drivers Joe and Shirley Flanigan have been transporting students to and from school for more than four decades.
by Nat Harwell
Just after the turn of the 20th Century, a farmer from an area now known as the Stewart community in southern Newton County grew concerned about the difficulty nearby students were experiencing getting to school. Located on Ga. 36, Heard-Mixon Elementary School was somewhat “out in the boondocks” in the days of dirt roads and horse-drawn carriages. The farmer took it upon himself to hook a wagon to a mule team and made the rounds in the community to take children to and from school.
Such was the birth, as the story goes, of the first public school bus transportation system in the state of Georgia some 120 years ago.
The present-day Newton County School System features two exceptional school bus drivers—a married couple, no less—who have a combined 85 years behind the wheel. Joe and Shirley Flanigan have racked up the miles transporting schoolchildren, not only through the decades but through historical times, as well. Joe in 2019 celebrated his 44th year of driving, while wife Shirley marked her 41st.
“Joe and Shirley Flanigan are the gems of our bus transportation department. They are quality drivers who serve as mentors to our entire staff. Nobody is more committed to our students and their safety than the Flanigans.”NCSS Director of Transportation Chad McCaskill
“Joe and Shirley Flanigan are the gems of our bus transportation department,” NCSS Director of Transportation Chad McCaskill said. “They are quality drivers who serve as mentors to our entire staff. Nobody is more committed to our students and their safety than the Flanigans.”
McCaskill should know, as he also serves as president of the Georgia Association of Pupil Transportation, which oversees the bus systems of the entire state.
“Joe and Shirley have driven every single club, every single athletic team, every academic team in our county at one point or another in their remarkable careers,” he said. “They are literally invaluable for their knowledge of the county and how it has changed over the decades and for their wisdom in dealing with kids and parents. When retirement comes around, Joe and Shirley will be in contention for statewide recognition for most years recorded in pupil transportation.”
There must be a secret ingredient in this iconic couple’s formula for longevity driving school buses. It is not an easy task, and the responsibility for keeping children safe is paramount.
“Well, first, you have to love kids,” Shirley said. “You will always have some good days and some bad days, but if you love the kids, it will always show and they will respect you for any discipline you have to mete out.” Joe puts it more succinctly. “Positivity is what it’s all about,” he said. “Positivity is contagious, and positivity translates into bus safety.”
Shirley started driving kids to Livingston Elementary School and branched out when West Newton Elementary was built. Later, she began transporting kids to Oak Hill Elementary. Joe’s approach pairs his positive outlook with a need for safety and a reasonable degree of quiet on the bus. He insists that kids are seated and socialize to an acceptable noise level. His favorite route to drive: Oak Hill.
“We had some issues at one point,” Joe said, “but it only took a little while until the young folks understood what I expected of them; and I want to give credit to Chad McCaskill, too, because that man has stood by me and all our drivers anytime we needed backing. It’s a whole lot easier driving when you know the big man has your back.”
Indeed, McCaskill came to Newton County in 1990 as a teacher and coach, putting the wrestling program at Newton High School on the map. Joe was one of his drivers.
“Yes, we were fortunate to take away the limelight from the Brookwoods and Parkviews and Berkmars for a time,” McCaskill said, “but through it all, Joe Flanigan drove more winners than losers, for sure.”
Joe laughed and with a twinkle in his eye told the secret of how much he enjoyed driving sports teams and doing his part to ensure they emerged victorious.
“I just told them, right before they got off my bus, ‘Folks, I’ll be right here waiting for you—if you win,’” he said. “‘If you don’t win, don’t be looking for me, and remember, it’s a long, long walk back home.’”
Its bus service stretching back more than a century, the Newton County School System has much about which to be proud as it relates to student transportation. Two dedicated drivers are at the front of the line, as they are now transporting, in some cases, their fifth generation of students to and from school. The Flanigans rarely miss a day of work. Joe has racked up 10 years of perfect attendance, bested only by Shirley’s 12.
“Every day has been a great one,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”