More than just a bus driver

Fifty years of miles and smiles!


by Lee Pierre

Charles Saunders

Doing the same thing for many years can turn into a tedious chore unless you are doing something you truly enjoy. It is quite evident that Charles Allison Saunders found his niche!

Public transportation in Roanoke began in 1888 with the streetcar business with four mule-pulled cars and two miles of track to help people stay out of the mud however in the 1920s streetcars gradually fell victim to the forces of the automobile and bus. The early improvements using steam replaced the mules in 1889 and electricity took over from steam within a few years. By 1925, Henry Ford had sold more than 10 million Model Ts across the nation, and the Roanoke Safety Motor Transit Company was rolling out buses to compete with the streetcars.

In 1965, a major change to public transport occurred; the government mandated that Roanoke Safety Motor Transit Company employ Black drivers. It was at this time former bus cleaners, William DeBerry and Kenneth Otey became bus drivers. Roanoke Safety Motor became Valley Metro in 1972.

Saunders had an aunt who worked in South Roanoke and would buy a weekly bus pass and would give the pass to Saunders every Friday when she arrived. He used that pass to ride the bus every Saturday night the late evening route driven by DeBerry. “Buses didn’t stop running until midnight back then. I fell in love with being on a bus and was enthralled by the thought of driving one,” he stated.

Each week he rode the bus, he learned more about the job, the passengers, what being a bus driver entailed, and more about himself. However, he did not pursue an occupation as a driver right away. After graduating in 1970 from Lucy Addison High School, Saunders held jobs at Rowe Furniture as well as Norfolk and Western and realized that neither job was something he truly enjoyed. On March 19, 1973, he was hired as a bus driver for Valley Metro.

As a new driver, he had different routes however for the last 30 years he drove Route 75 – Salem Avenue to Shenandoah to Veterans Hospital. Driving served two purposes for Saunders, a steady paycheck, and the opportunity to meet people.

“I’m a people person so I enjoy talking to my riders,” he said. “I found out that most people have great hearts and will look out for you.”

The majority of his regular riders became friends with whom he could talk about sports and other topics of interest and the riders even shared family stories with him. They were his work family and he treated them as such. Saunders believes the traits of a successful bus operator are “Got to pay attention, watch what you’re doing, and you got to love your passengers.”

He recalls one rider who lived in Lansdowne and worked at the Veterans Hospital. She and her young son would board the bus at Lansdowne, Saunders would stop at Greenvale Nursery School, allow her to get off, take her son to the school, then reboard the bus to get to her job at Veterans Hospital.

“If I hadn’t waited for her, she would have had to wait for the next bus to come through,” he stated.

She told him of her strong appreciation ‘without your help, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my job.’ Those words meant the world to Saunders. He feels that driving a bus is more than just driving; it’s also getting to know your riders and helping them along the way.

“He’s the epitome of a Christian man who loves the Lord, believes in taking care of his family, and friends, and will help a person in need, said Leslie Terry, a fellow church member. “If you asked anyone, he’s a very humble man.”

On Friday, March 17th, the Greater Roanoke Transit Company/Valley Metro celebrated the 50 years of service achievement for bus operator Charles Saunders. The celebration was held in the employee break/conference room at the Third Street Station 325 Salem Ave. SW where his family, co-workers, General Manager, and Asst. GM and many others gathered to celebrate him. Mayor Sherman Lee presented him with the “Key to the City” and other presentations and gifts were given to him as well.

“This is an outstanding achievement for Mr. Saunders. Valley Metro and transit users of the Roanoke Valley experienced a safe transit experience and excellent customer service with Mr. Saunders at the wheel. We salute you, Charles!” Kevin L. Price, General Manager said.

 Now after 50 years of being a Valley Metro bus driver, having been recognized and given a plaque from the National Safety Council designating him as a member of the four million safe miles driven, he is parking his bus.

Saunders, the son of Charles Albert and Kathleen C. Saunders, is a member of Greater Mount Zion Church and says that retirement will allow him to spend more time with his wife, Arnetta as well as do some of the things that he truly loves like yard work and being more involved in the church. “I’ll find something to do,” he says and one thing he is really looking forward to doing is traveling!