Retired police commander John Suessman dealt with some dangerous situations during his 30-plus years at the Lacey Police Department.
But he says nothing prepared him for his first solo stint driving a school bus — about 41/4 miles one way — from Timberline High School to the James Koval Center for the Performing Arts in Lacey last spring.
“I was scared to death,” recalls Suessman, 55, of Olympia. “I’m telling you, I’ve never been scared in my career. For some reason, this
time — I had 67 students on a bus, all the nicest young kids I’ve ever seen, and they didn’t know it was my first trip — truly, my knees were knocking.”
The lifelong South Sound resident, who retired from Lacey police in July 2011, was recently hired as director of transportation for North Thurston Public Schools.
“John’s successful leadership experience in law enforcement combined with his recent training as a school transportation specialist will serve our students, parents and staff exceptionally well,” North Thurston deputy superintendent John Bash said in a statement.
It’s an opportunity that Suessman couldn’t foresee when he applied to be a substitute bus driver last spring.
Even with a healthy pension, Suessman said he wasn’t ready to quit working. He took a job at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien.
Suessman said he loved the job, but spent way too much time on the road during rush-hour traffic.
“In February, I said to my wife, ‘What are we doing? This is crazy,’” he said.
Suessman said his wife encouraged him to consider a career change. Then one day they saw a banner that North Thurston Public Schools was hiring substitute bus drivers. Suessman decided to apply, thinking it could lead to a permanent school bus driver position.
Last spring, he attended an 11-week bus driver course with more than a dozen other applicants.
“Only five of us completed the entire class and got our CDLs (Commercial Driver Licenses) and certificates from OSPI (the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) to actually transport students,” he said. “It was so intense.”
When the former North Thurston transportation director announced during the summer that he was leaving the district to pursue a career as a special education teacher, Suessman was contacted by some colleagues who urged him to apply for the position.
After looking at the job description, he realized it might be a good fit.
“I believe in public safety, I believe in bus driver and student safety,” he said.
Substitute bus drivers make about $16.30 an hour, according to the North Thurston website. Suessman’s new job pays $90,458 a year. He oversees transportation for about 20 sites in Thurston County’s largest school district.
“There’s 82 regular routes, 126 regular buses, 125 employees, which include the mechanics, the dispatcher on the radio and your special education and regular bus drivers,” he said. “It’s an incredible operation.”
Suessman said he’s still trying to figure out his new job, which began Sept. 3. He said his goal is to be approachable for district employees and families.
Besides knowledge of the area, experience managing a fleet of vehicles and deep connections to the community, Suessman also brings the slogan “Provide the service, provide the very best service” from his time with the police.
“That was my working motto, and it’s what I believe in,” he said.
Lacey police Lt. Phil Comstock said he often heard Suessman use the term to motivate other officers. “I would not doubt that he took that with him to the transportation division,” Comstock said. “He coined that, and that’s all John. He utilized that for years and years.”
Suessman said he’s looking forward to his second career.
“I’m just too young to not do anything,” he said. “And this is a great way to contribute back to the community that’s been so gracious to me throughout my career.”Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 firstname.lastname@example.org @Lisa_Pemberton