VINELAND - If Dean Charlson got frequent-driving miles, he could cash them in and go just about anywhere he wanted. Probably for as often as he wanted to go. The 76-year-old Charlson is in his 52nd year as a driver for the Vineland school district. He has driven full time for the district for all but the first two years.

The numbers, as best as the district can figure for Charlson, are impressive: He has driven more than 375,000 miles, shuttling more than 7,500 students between home and school.

"Gosh, I never thought of it in those terms," Charlson said. "It certainly is a lot of miles."

And some of them stood out more than others.

"I remember driving East Vineland, and I picked up a girl at a farmhouse," Charlson said. "Her parents told me to come in their yard and turn around."

"Well, every time I went to pick the girl up, a duck would come and peck at my door," he said. "And when I dropped the girl off at night, the duck was there waiting for me. That lasted four or five months. It was comic because he would also peck the glass."

Charlson's work has not been overlooked by the district. The Board of Education honored him last week for his decades of service, which continue as he drives a van transporting students in the New Jersey Youth Corps program.

"Over the 25 years I have had the pleasure of being Dean's supervisor, he has been a wonderful employee," said Joe Callavini, the district's transportation and registration coordinator. "The 540 sick days he has amassed is proof that he never takes off."

He would also organize the transportation department's sunshine club, spaghetti dinner and retirement functions, Callavini said. Charlson also was a mentor for new drivers.

In a sense, Charlson was just doing what other bus drivers did to help him.

Charlson started his bus-driving career when one of his farmer friends asked him to handle a bus route during hunting season.

"Back then, all the farmers would take off during hunting season," Charlson said. "I said, sure, just teach me how to drive. So he took me out and I practiced and practiced, and when I took the test, I passed."

The school buses were smaller decades ago, he said. He said that the buses had manual transmissions and that one of the first buses he drove had to be started with a crank.

Charlson said one part of being a bus driver that kept the job fun was lending a sympathetic ear to his passengers, especially the high school students.

"Once I got to know them, we started talking," Charlson said. "They might not have been comfortable talking to their parents and found it easier to communicate with me."

Charlson's current group of New Jersey Youth Corps students appreciate their driver.

"He's always happy," said local resident Shaimara Heredia. "He's always in a good mood. I look up to him a lot."

"He's one of the best I've ever had," said Joseph Dattalo, another local youth. "He has the kids' best interests at heart. He's always on time, always has a great attitude. I talk to him a lot. He's really a good guy."

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197