Wanda Wise backs into the “base” at the Amtrak depot, which is being reroofed. She has been driving red buses for 14 years. “I went to Coca-Cola Foods and a robot took my job,” she said. “Then I went to Jessup Door and it closed.”

Archived Story

Ifill hosts morning drive time

Published 9:23pm Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Everyone has a story.
That’s certainly true of Dowagiac citizens who rely on Dial-A-Ride Transit (DART) and city employees transporting them since 1975.
There’s Richard Fry, using the wheelchair lift with his scooter going to Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital, his life altered forever by a freak roller-skating accident at 16 at the old Happy Hill rink on Colby Street.
There’s Shellie Bowling, a 38-year-old criminal justice student counting on the two red buses to convey her to classes four times a week at Southwestern Michigan College.
There’s David Thorne, 77, who used to trim limbs from California power lines and work in sawmills, headed home to Cedar Sands with two shopping bags.
Or dispatcher Phyllis Ifill, who started at 15 through a high school program and sometimes feels like she’s hosting “the Dial-A-Ride morning show” the way callers want to put a face with her familiar voice they follow on their scanner.
“Your son rode with me a couple of times to Lincoln School,” she remembers about a boy who graduated in 2007. “I have a sharp memory.”
“I don’t make a whole lot of money, and I’m not looking to get rich, but I’m one of the few people who honestly loves their job,” said Ifill, who has been a full-time employee since 1995. “Our typical riders are seniors from Chestnut Towers or Cedar Sands, a morning route with school kids” and SMC students.
And chatty driver Wanda Wise, one of two sets of twins growing up in the Lawrence O. Starrett family. Navigating 100 miles a day through the same grid might seem monotonous, but she feels “attached” to her fare family.
“Each individual I come across has a story,” Wise said. “Time goes by fast because we always have something to talk about. Seniors have nothing but high regard for Dial-A-Ride. Some younger ones want taxi service. They want to go straight there now, but when we get busy we can’t do that. Normally it takes seven minutes to get across town.”
Tuesday, the springlike last day of January, was the calm before the storm that the first week of February promises when checks hit mailboxes.
“It’s not uncommon to get 14 calls back to back on payday,” Wise said.
“When seniors get paid,” Ifill said, “that’s when they go out and treat themselves, pick up their prescriptions and go to their doctor appointments. We’re constantly on the move, but today they’re waiting for tomorrow. Everybody knows everybody on the bus,” which holds a dozen. “It’s like one big happy family traveling. We average 100 people a day” from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. weekdays.
We board the bus as Wise delivers Justus Gage crossing guard Mary Montgomery from Oak Street to Riverside Apartments.

David Thorne
“I average twice a week, sometimes three,” Thorne said. “It takes me anyplace I want to go — doctor, pharmacy, stores. I’ve been to Family Fare, picking up some groceries. I don’t drive anymore, so this is great. I can’t say enough” about the service. “I lived right on the ocean” in California, “so I could play in the ocean and walk into the redwood forest within an hour. Just a beautiful setting.”

Richard Fry
Fry turned to DART for a lift from Keene Avenue to Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital because it’s “handy.” He’s less of a regular, “but my ’94 van broke down. There’s something wrong with the $4,500 hydraulic lift.”
Fry’s life changed forever at 16 on Jan. 21, 1966, in a “freakish” roller skating accident. He sat down to tie his skates and “instead of standing up and going, I laid down on my back. A friend of mine skated over the top of me and grabbed me by the arms so I could take off backward, but he lost his balance. A split second changed my entire life. I have a lot of memories of Happy Hill. One horrible one, but a lot of good ones, too.”

Shellie Bowling
Bowling, 38, and originally from Niles, climbs aboard on Middle Crossing Road for the trip to campus.
“What time’s your class?” Wise greets Shellie, who was up until 2 a.m. writing an English paper.
“I have four classes,” she said, “two on Monday and Wednesday and two on Tuesday and Thursday, off Fridays.” Her classes sometimes let out after buses return to base, leaving her begging for rides.
“As soon as I finish my associate’s, I’m transferring for a bachelor’s degree to be a probation or parole officer,” Bowling said.
“I don’t have a driver’s license right now. Someone rear-ended me and I had no insurance. It was eat or pay for my car insurance. I worked at Auto-Cam and got laid off, then Creative Foam and got laid off when the auto industry collapsed. I decided to go back to school. I’m in my second year and hope to graduate in December. I would not make it through school without (DART). I would have given up a long time ago.”
Bowling confers with another SMC student, Michelle Canfield, about the possibility of DART combining with Cass County Transit.
Canfield’s initial reaction was opposition, but the more she thinks about it, she can see advantages.
County buses run later, until 6, and Cassopolis has Cass District Library.

Wanda Wise
Before driving for 14 years, Wise worked for Dana Corp. until it left North  Paul Street.
“Then I went to Coca-Cola Foods and a robot took my job,” she said. “Then I went to Jessup Door and it closed.” She drove for Head Start in the early 1980s.
“I know 90 percent of the people by name,” Wise said. “Unfortunately, with the economy, at least 70 percent of our riders are on Social Security or disability and a lot of people are going back to school for new jobs. We transport a lot of people to Michigan Works.”
Her husband worked at National Copper Products from 1973 until 2008. He and their son work together in Mishawaka, Ind. Her oldest son in the Air Force, who turned 40 the day before, moved back to Michigan’s Macomb County from Tampa.
She pulls into Harding’s Friendly Market to shuttle Brenda back to Mary Street with groceries.
“I use it quite a bit for shopping,” Brenda said. “Ones who are working are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Everything keeps going up except wages.”
“Yesterday,” Wise remarks, “a lady was short a nickel. I gave her a nickel and she hugged me like there was no tomorrow. When she came out of the hospital she gave me the nickel back. You meet some of the sweetest people.”
Wise picks up Donna Coles at McDonald’s, where she enjoyed a sausage biscuit and coffee, for the ride home to Hamilton Square.
“I use it every day,” Coles said. “To come to McDonald’s, to take my girls back and forth to school, to pay my bills. The only days I don’t use it are Saturday and Sunday, and I wish they worked on Saturday, too. I used to drive until I had hip surgery. A lot of people don’t own cars now because insurance got so high. They drop you right at your door. You get real good service and the drivers are friendly people.”

By using this website’s user-contribution features, including comments, photo galleries, or any other feature, you agree to abide by the terms of use. Please read this agreement in its entirety because it contains useful information that will help you better understand the rules and general "good manners" that are expected when contributing content to this website.

Editor's Picks