Eight o’clock sharp. That’s what time Verneice Lemis used to expect the bus going to the Renton Senior Activity Center. She was never disappointed.
“As sure as the clock said eight o’clock, he was there,” says the 98-year-old Lemis.
“He” is Bert Feskens, driver of the Renton Senior Activity Center activity bus for the past seven years.
Lemis has hitched a ride with Bert three to four times a week during each of those years.
“He’s been a wonderful driver — I can depend on him,” Lemis says.
She’s not the only senior who can say that.
An upstairs room in the Renton Senior Activity Center was filled with Bert admirers last Wednesday morning for Bert’s going-away party. Two big cakes sat on a table. One chocolate, one white. Both read: “Thanks Bert It’s Been Fun.”
Bert’s bus passengers sat in chairs around the room’s perimeter. Admirers spilled out the door.
Bert’s been just one of several drivers at the senior center since transportation began in 1990. And he’s not the only driver now. Rose Warren drives Mondays. But Bert’s been special. That’s what senior center director Shawn Daly and recreation specialist Debbie Little told the crowd at Bert’s party.
“Bert’s been nothing short of tremendous for us,” Daly said.
So tremendous that they’re keeping him on.
Bert was back to work at the senior center the day after he retired. The new bus driver didn’t work out. Bert said he’d come back until a new driver was hired.
“I’ve had the shortest retirement history of Renton,” he joked.
Not that he minds. At 76, and with a lifetime of bus driving behind him, Bert is ready to retire. Before the senior center, he drove 23 years for Metro, four for Greyhound and more years for a Seattle tour company. Before all that he was a police officer in Salem. So he’s ready to “watch ball games and drink beer.” But he’s enjoyed his time behind the wheel.
“It’s been an awful lot of fun,” he told Wednesday’s crowd. “You’re just fantastic people, all of you. I’ll never forget any of you.”
Few will forget him.
After Wednesday’s speeches, Bert’s passengers lined up for hugs and goodbyes. There was even a serenade and harmonica playing.
Seven years, same as me, and I took all your trips, one woman told him. In addition to his Wednesday, Thursday and Friday pick-ups and drop-offs across the Renton School District boundaries, Bert
organized trips two Tuesdays a month. He started those trips when the city cut his Tuesday hours. Destinations included Snoqualmie Pass for lunch, area malls during Christmas – and casinos.
“It drove me crazy, they’d go to casinos every day if I let them,” Bert says.
His bus was always packed, with a waiting list. Sometimes he even repeated the trip the next week.
Evelyn Medlang, 83, fondly recalls the “secret tours,” when Bert would make his passengers guess the destination. Her favorite was the Big Hamburger, a Bellevue Mall restaurant.
“I’ll miss you,” Medlang told Bert Wednesday. “So many great trips,” she added.
As for Lemis, her favorite — and pretty much only — trip was the monthly visit to the Black Diamond Bakery for bread and coconut donuts.
Lemis has made Bert plenty of her own treats over the years. Like apple and lemon pies. Not anymore though. She tells Bert she can’t bake at her new place. He tells her she’s just lazy.
But he’s only joking. Bert’s known for his sense of humor.
“When you have someone so compassionate, so nice, with such a great sense of humor, you can’t go wrong,” Little told Wednesday’s crowd.
Lemis agrees. She calls Bert “a wonderful person.”
Bert picks up Lemis a little later from her downtown Renton place than he did from her old Seattle house. But she still gets to the senior center in time to help set the lunch tables, a task she’s done for the last 30 years.
“He’s a wonderful driver,” Lemis says. “I never was afraid to ride with him.”
And she’s happy she will get to ride with Bert a while longer.
“I’m happy he’s going to be with us a little longer,” she says. “It’s not good for him, but it’s good for us.”
Emily Garland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (425) 255-3484, ext. 5052.