Bus driver Donald McNeel, of Hillsboro, was named Service Personnel of the Year for Pocahontas County Schools for the 2020-2021 school year. He was nominated by Hillsboro Elementary School to represent its service personnel, and he was selected by the board office to represent the county.
In May, superintendent Terrence Beam suggested McNeel should apply to be the West Virginia Service Personnel of the Year. At first, McNeel was skeptical about his chances, but he went online and filled out the application anyway.
In the last week of June, he was contacted by the West Virginia Department of Education and was informed he was in the top 10. The next step was to go to Charleston to do an interview with the WVDE board and State Superintendent Clayton Burch.
McNeel said Burch asked what his concerns and optimisms were.
“I told him my concerns are with this COVID stuff we’re dealing with,” McNeel said. “We are a one high school county and, for the most part, my bus has kids from at least three, sometimes four schools on it, and it wouldn’t take long to spread the virus and get a pandemic going locally,” McNeel said.
As for his optimism, McNeel reflected on the past and how the county and country have persevered through a lot of turmoil.
“That was September 7 – the interview – and so my optimism is based on the fact that we’ve had a lot of crises we’ve lived through,” he said. “I told him this coming Saturday will be the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. We have bus drivers that weren’t even born then, that don’t understand what changed with 9/11.
“I said, plus my county went through two floods in ’85 and ’96 – minor floods, too – but those major ones,” he continued. “I said the second one we went through better because we lived and learned from the first how to deal with it. I told him I hate to admit it, but I also remember when JFK was shot and for all of those events, most everybody knows where they were and what they were doing at that time. We’ve learned and we’ve moved on from all of those and we’re still here.
“We’ll survive this, too.”
Later that evening at a banquet, the state service personnel and teacher of the year was announced.
Although McNeel was not selected, he was grateful to be included in the top ten and to meet fellow service personnel from around the state.
“It was a great group of people that I got to be there with,” he said. “It was nice to meet the others. I was disappointed, obviously, but it didn’t take me long to get over it.”
McNeel began his school bus driving career with Pocahontas County Schools as a substitute driver in 1989. He filled in for Joey Smith. As a full-time farmer, McNeel wasn’t sure he wanted to be more than a substitute, but in 1996, when a position opened up, he applied and got the job.
“This run came available when Dale Armstrong retired,” he said.
At the end of that school year, McNeel returned a bus to the bus garage at Pocahontas County High School and was offered a ride back to Marlinton from then superintendent Tom Long and director of transportation Alice Irvine. That ride was an impromptu job interview.
“They gave me a ride back to town and said, ‘by the way, do you want to sign up for that job down at Hillsboro?’” McNeel recalled.
When he first took the job, it was a long run that started in Jacox around 6:15 a.m.
“That run, it was surprising to me at first,” he said. “I’ve lived down there all my life except for when I went off to college. There were times the sun would be shining when I’d leave Hillsboro in January and you’d get over there [Jacox], and there’s three inches of snow on the road.”
McNeel would get out and put chains on his bus and keep going. In the 32 years he has been driving school bus, McNeel has only had to stop in the middle of a run to put on chains three times. He’s only been stuck twice – both times with chains.
McNeel drives the smallest bus in the Pocahontas County fleet – a 54-seater – and has between 35 to 45 passengers. That’s changed drastically since the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to go to virtual learning and many parents choosing to keep their children at home until the risk dissipates in the county.
“It’s all been different through COVID,” he said. “We actually have two runs in the morning. There’s three of us down there that have two runs. The first run is to go through and get high school and middle school kids, bring them to Hillsboro. Then we go back around and get the elementary school kids.
“Right now, I don’t have much of a load on the second part because of COVID and all of that stuff,” he added. “I’ve got probably nine kids registered but I pick up six or seven. The kids miss me, and I miss them. But, they’ve been very good about wearing masks for me.”
Since he drives students of all ages, McNeel has students for 14 years of their lives and in that time, they grow attached to him and vice versa. He’s even had multi-generations of Hillsboro families ride his bus.
“I just did that last year,” he said. “That was on Caesar Mountain. I hauled their grandpa just when he was about to graduate and then two more generations after that.”
When he turned 65, McNeel considered retiring, but was told by several of his passengers he had to wait for them to graduate because he had been their driver so long.
“Ryliegh Vaughn said, ‘you can’t retire until I graduate,’” McNeel said. “Then when it got down to COVID, she ended up driving, so I didn’t get to haul her last year. Same with Brianna Sharp. She didn’t want me to retire until she finished school.
“I’m attached to them, too,” he added, of his kids. “They share things with me. There have been times that I’m sure they share more than what mom and dad wanted them to.”
The joy of being around small children is they have no filter and thinking of that fact made McNeel recall when his daughter, Ruthana, was in the first grade, and she came home from school to tell him that her teacher “got pregnant in class today.”
Of course, McNeel knew she meant the teacher announced she was pregnant, but it’s little things like that snafu that stick in his mind when he thinks of the students he’s bused around all these years.
McNeel has three children of his own – Chris, Ruthana and Ben – who rode his bus to school, as well as to soccer and football games.
“I got to drive my own kids to soccer games and football games,” he said. “I may have had to miss the end of the game to go start up the bus, but I got to go to their games.”
Reflecting on his 32 years as a bus driver, McNeel thinks about how so much has changed. When he first started driving, the buses only had CB radios while now they have radios with a wider range.
“If we had a problem, you had a local CB contact, and I still do,” he said. “Happens to be a HAM operator, too, so he can get in touch with anybody.
“I remember one [morning] trip in particular. I got to the bottom of the hill that goes from Lobelia to Briery Knob,” he continued. “It’s a pretty steep hill. I got to the very bottom of it and a tree had fallen across. I didn’t have any radio that I could call anybody until I got back up to the top. I hollered on the CB to Hyman McMillion on Droop Mountain. I said, ‘you need to call these parents, tell them I’m not going to be able to get their kids.’”
Because the road was narrow, McNeel had to back the bus back up the hill and turn around to get the students to school.
Despite the tree and the inability to pick up several students, he was only five minutes late getting to HES.
In addition to being a farmer and school bus driver, McNeel is also an EMT with the Hillsboro Fire Department, CPR instructor, county floodplain manager, a member of the Pocahontas Memorial Hospital board, County EMS board, 911 board, the Pocahontas County Health Department, Farm Bureau and Oak Grove Presbyterian Church.
Along with his three children, McNeel’s family also includes six grandchildren – three of whom attend Hillsboro Elementary School – two step-grandchildren and a step-great-grandchild.
Son Chris lives in Alabama with his family, and daughter Ruthana and other son Ben and their families live in Hillsboro.
All three of his children were born in Winchester, Virginia, where McNeel was a fire inspector. The family lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well, but they returned to Hillsboro as often as possible.
“Every vacation I got, I came back to the farm,” he said. “When we were in Pittsburgh, we came back once a month, and from Winchester, about every two to three weeks.”
In the early 1980s, a farm adjacent to that of his parents’, Moffet and Elma McNeel’s, farm was on the market, and he took that opportunity to return to his hometown.
“When that farm became available, I asked dad if I could come back and help him on the farm and try to make a go of it here,” McNeel said. “I think he wanted me to. Mom said ‘It’s hard work and the money’s not here right now.’
“Money’s never been in farming. You don’t get rich, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in it.”