For the Pathfinder
June 17, 1999
After 35 years of driving the Swan Valley bus for Seeley Swan High School, Dale Conley has retired.
He started the job when he was 24 years old, in 1964.
"I learned a lot working there," he said. "That's been the fastest 35 years. This has really gone by in a hurry. I was pretty much a young kid when I started."
Students, teachers family and friends recently paid tribute to Conley, who has, over the years, carried the most imporant and valuable cargo on the highway. His family hosted a surprise retirement party for him in Condon over Memorial Day weekend.
"It was goodonce I got through crying," Conley laughed.
Conley started his school bus business when Seeley Swan High School opened in 1964. His wife, Karen mentioned to him that the new high school would need a bus to haul kids from the north end of the District at Salmon Prairie in the Swan Valley to Seeley Lake. Conley consulted a bus contractor from Bigfork for advice, then bid on, and was awarded, the high school bus contract. The school district asked only that the Conley's install a telephone. "We were the second family at Salmon Prairie to have a telephone," Conley said, adding that telephones and electricity were still relatively new in the Swan Valley at that time.
The bus route turned out to be a good thing for Conley and his family.
"We had bills to pay," Dale explained, "and the bus route seemed like a good way to supplement our income."
Little did he know he'd be driving the high school bus for the next three decades. More than a million and a half accident-free miles later, Conley said the key to being a good bus driver is to enjoy driving and to watch out for other traffic.
The weather, winter driving conditions and windstorms can be hazardous, he explained. But the real hazard is other drivers who don't pay attention to kids getting on and off the bus. "That's what you really have to watch out for."
Every morning during the school year, Conley would leave his house at Salmon Prairie at 20 minutes to seven, pick up high school students there, then pick up the Lake County students who were attending school at Seeley Lake instead of Bigfork. Then he'd head up the valley to the Summit, stopping along the highway for students from places like Condon, Rumble Creek, Holland and Lindbergh Lake. Past the Summit, he picked up more kids, all the way to the high school.
That first year he had about 40 students riding the high school bus regularly. By 1967, the number had increased to 66, and he had to buy a bigger bus. Last year, 40-42 students rode the Swan bus on a regular basis.
During the first seven years that the high school was in operation, Conley worked for Rovero's during the day, then picked up students form the high school each afternoon and headed home. In 1971, he was hired as the study hall proctor at the high school, and worked in that position for the next 28 years. (From 1964 until 1984, he also drove the bus for all of the school's extracurricular activities.)
Each afternoon, when high school classes and activities were done, Conley's voice would ring through the hall, "Swan bus is leaving. Last call." And Conley would head north with a busload of students. He is a strict disciplinarian, intolerant of horseplay on the bus, but he has a soft side, too. In the early years, students pooled their money and bought Conley a tape deck for the bus, so they could listen to music during the long ride to and from school. Eight-track tape systems were replaced by cassettes, and later CD equipment.
"They have to have their music," he grinned.
Conley has also treated his bus route kids to ice cream several times a year. This year, and for several years before, he has treated the whole high school to ice cream, and also donated apples and oranges to the high school, and the Swan Valley and Salmon Prairie elementary schools. At the end of the school year, he also treated the Swan Valley Elementary School students to ice cream bars.
When asked about events that stand out over the past 35 years, Conley could go on for hours, about incidents on icy roads, at tournaments, and close encounters with deer and traffic. But a couple of things stand out above the rest.
One time, when the roads were particularly icy south of the Summit, Conley pulled the bus over to the edge of the road, waiting for a sander. Other cars were stopping, too. One, driven by a candy salesman from Kalispell, slid into the ditch. The high school sutdents piled off the bus, walked over to the man's car, and lifted his car back onto the road.
"That guy went to the back of his car, opened the trunk, and handed out boxes of chocolates to all of the kids," Conley laughed.
Conley never missed a day of school becuase of icy roads or bad weather, except in recent years, when the governor ordered schools to shut down during a few below-zero days with high winds.
Icy roads were always well sanded, he said, except when the sanders broke down, which happened sometimes. Cold weather usually never stopped anybody from going to school.
"The coldest day happened the first year," he explained. It was 54 degrees below zero in Seeley Lake, he said. "Roy Scott was the first principal. He came out and said to me, 'What in the hell are you doing here? Do you know how cold it is?' He couldn't believe the bus had started. Of course, he didn't know that I'd gotten up every two hours during the night to start that bus, to make sure it would go in the morning. We were only short six kids, from Holland and Lindbergh Lake. The rest were all out there, waiting for the bus."
In 1969, Dale bought the Swan Valley Elementary School bus route from Eunice Hultman. In 1981, the Swan Elementary School split their bus route into two routes. Conleys also contract the Potomac route for Seeley Swan High School. Over the years, Dale and Karen have employed dozens of bus drivers on their various routes and contracts. But Dale has been the sole driver for the Swan route.
This fall, students along the thirty-mile stretch of highway from Salmon Prairie to Seeley Lake will be greeted by a new bus driver. The Conleys incorporated their family business several years ago with Dale's son and daughter-in-law, Owen and Dana Conley. Dale admits he might be a substitute driver occasionally, but mostly he looks forward to catching up on chores at home, and traveling a little bit. After hauling his own kids, his grandkids, and most of the neighbors' kids and grandkids to high school during the past 35 years, he's ready to take some well-deserved time off.