The Amazing Photos and Life of Kalamazoo’s First Woman Bus Driver
Anyone who knows me knows I LOVE stories about women doing amazing things. Maybe they're inventors, maybe they're just breaking the mold and daring to be in a place where they were previously unwelcomed. The latter is the case for this story.
Allow me to introduce Barbara Stevens. She was Kalamazoo's very first female bus driver. Barbara's photos were shared by her granddaughter, Kelly Crowell, in the Facebook group Vanished Kalamazoo last week. I, as the woman who loves stories about women, immediately reached out. Kelly and her mother, Caryla, were kind enough to share not just photos, but a bit about Barbara's life.
According to Caryla, Barbara's daughter, Barbara was born in 1927 and raised on the north side of Kalamazoo. She graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School in January 1946, started working as a bus driver at the age of 25 and worked as a driver until the summer of 1956. Previously, busses had only been driven by men. When Barbara took the seat it caused quite the stir. The news even made it to the front page:
"Masculine Throne Topples" it reads as it goes on to describe the coveted role of bus driver as "beyond the reach of femininity". How far we've come.
As for Barbara's experience as the first woman bus driver, there was some...adjustment time needed. Caryla said that they had to install a new bathroom so Barbara wouldn't have to use the men's restroom. She also said that, at first, when Barbara would enter the breakroom at work her fellow employees, the men, would get up and leave. They wouldn't even be in the same room as her. However, Caryla described her mother as outgoing, personable and as someone who could strike up a conversation with anyone. It wasn't too long before everyone, men and the one woman, were having breakfast together on a regular basis.
Barbara's outgoing personality extended into her professional life as she was described as someone who got to know her regular riders and talked about them like they were friends. She would tell stories of their weddings, kids they had, trips they took and so on. She made friends with everyone.
A few incredible stories stem from Barbara's time as a bus driver. Caryla wrote to me about a time where she missed the bus on the way to summer camp. At 7 years old she decided to walk from her home on the northside of town to the Y when a bus pulled up and opened the doors. The driver, not her mother, asked, "Hey! Aren't you Barb's girl?" When she said yes he insisted she board the bus and he drove her the rest of the way to the Y.
During a separate time, Barbara was driving a route on Oakland Dr., in front of the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital, when a gentleman waived for her to stop. She did. However, when she opened the door she spotted two men in white coats approaching and yelling for her to keep driving. She quickly shut the doors to the bus and left.
A couple of fun facts: Barbara Stevens was long-legged, to the point where she could clear the corner water fountains. She was also known to eat a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread in one sitting but somehow never gained weight.
Caryla added that her mother was part of the Greatest Generation.
She had a "can do" attitude that a lot of people of that generation had when gender roles were sharply defined. She didn't talk about breaking traditions or doing a mans job and the word feminist was not yet part of our vocabulary. She taught me that you can do or be whatever you choose.
To some, the idea of being the first woman bus driver may not seem groundbreaking. But, there's an entire generation of women that had to be "the first" at male-dominated fields. Whatever they did, wherever they are now, I applaud them for clearing the path for the rest of us.
A HUGE thank you to both Kelly and Caryla for sharing this little part of their history with me!