Kenny Morrell poses in front of one of his Holston Bus Co. buses in Bristol, Tenn., recently. Photo by David Grace.
BLOUNTVILLE — Kenny Morrell turned 80 back in the fall, and he's spent almost 58 of those years operating a business that has transported generations of Sullivan County school students.
As of April 1, Morrell said, he will have spent 58 years with Holston Bus Co. and its predecessor, Hickory Tree Bus Line.
But Morrell last year gave the system an eight-month notice that his company no longer will be one of the two largest bus contractors operating for Sullivan County schools as of the end of the 2013-14 school year.
Things have changed since Morrell started in the business. Fifty-eight years ago, he said, the buses were blue and white instead of the familiar yellow.
"The only safety feature we had to have was two headlights," Morrell quipped during the public comment section of a recent Sullivan County Board of Education meeting.
Morrell said he's worked with 10 superintendents or directors of schools and dozens and dozens of school board members and administrators.
When it comes to school buses, Morrell said he's "seen it all, done it all and loved it all" but that upon turning 80 in the fall, he decided it was time to slow down a bit — although he'll still be operating buses for the Bristol, Tenn., school system.
He estimated that his company ha provided bus service to 92 million riders.
Morrell, who offered his expertise and experience to the school system during the transition, received a standing ovation from the audience and school board members.
Director of Schools Jubal Yennie said that requests for proposals for 12 bus routes, which normally are advertised every four years, and the 40 routes Morrell's departure from the business will leave vacant should have results by the middle of the month.
Most of the Holston Bus Co. routes are in the eastern and middle sections of the county, serving the Sullivan East and Sullivan Central high school zones.
Yennie said the school board may need to have a called meeting to consider the RFPs.
In an interview, Morrell said his days in the bus business date to 1953, when he washed buses for the Hickory Tree Bus Line. After returning from a stint in the Army during the Korean War, he became a bus driver for Hickory Tree in 1956. He worked for and eventually managed the company for 20 years, until he bought it out.
At one time, his company had about 70 bus routes but now has 57 routes — 40 for the county and 17 for Bristol. He also maintains 70 buses.
Aside from the shift from blue and white to mandated yellow in the mid-1960s, Morrell said other changes over the years include the four-way stop signals that are amber for about to stop and red when the bus stops, a stop arm with a stop sign on the side of the bus, air brakes and a buzzer that won't go off until a driver walks to the back of the bus to check for children who may have fallen asleep.
All buses have switched to automatic transmissions and longer-lasting diesel motors with more torque.
As for drivers, they have shifted from almost all men to about 85 percent to 90 percent women.
Another change has been the number of contractors serving the county. When he got into the contracting business, he said the county had 24 contractors, which has now fallen to five.
He also used to be a bus dealer until five years ago and said he's gotten requests over the years from Kingsport, Washington County, Bristol, Va., and Wise County for a quote to handle their buses, but he said he turned them down because they were too far a w a y.
He said the issues boil down to school systems up North keeping buses much longer instead of selling them when they still have life left in them.
He said Tennessee has gone from allowing buses on the road for seven years to 17 years and predicted legislation in Nashville will pass that would remove the age restriction as long as the buses pass inspections.
"Buses are so much better now than they used to be," he said, saying a diesel bus with 100,000 miles is just getting broken in.
Morrell said new buses cost about $95,000 each, and he said he is skeptical that the county would want to pay the millions of dollars for new buses for more than 100 regular routes.
He said that each county route pays $34,000 plus a fuel surcharge — with a 3 percent increase most years.
With used buses harder to acquire, Morrell said it was simply time for him to give up the county routes.