Beloved SEPTA bus driver Eugene "Smitty" Smith retires

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SEPTA bus driver Sharon Morris with Eugene "Smitty" Smith at 33rd and Dickinson in south Philadelphia. Smith, 67, a SEPTA bus driver on the Rt 29 bus, is retiring at the end of 2014. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )

Joanne Williams has been riding Eugene "Smitty" Smith's Route 29 bus across South Philadelphia for many years. "He's an angel. He just don't want to marry me yet," she lamented the other morning.

Since the SEPTA driver is retiring Tuesday, she knew this would be her last chance.

At her stop, bracing herself on her cane, she whispered in his ear.

"Nah," he replied, "my wife's a keeper."

They both smiled. Then she leaned in and gave Smitty a hug - he's been collecting many of those of late - and exited his bus at Broad Street for the last time.

Not all of his 500 daily passengers want to marry Smitty, 67, who is officially retiring after 36 years of driving a SEPTA bus, but many are grieving his departure. They will miss his politeness, patience, and respect for all passengers.

Narottam Parmar, 70, ran up to the bus at Eighth and Morris the other day, just to hand Smitty a homemade card, decorated with palm trees and waves on a beach. It included a note and a dinner invitation.

"He's the best man ever," Parmar said. "We shall be losing the most courteous bus driver. It will be difficult for me now to travel to Walmart. I will be missing him."

Smitty started out driving nights and weekends. As the years went by, and his seniority grew, he's had his pick of routes and schedules. For nine years he's been driving Route 29, a short trip from river to river - from 33d and Dickinson, near the Schuylkill, to Pier 70, a shopping center by the Delaware.

Essentially, he drives east on Morris, west on Tasker.

"Quiet, straight, and the people are great," he says.

He can do the loop in an hour, eight runs a day.

He drives in low gear because it helps the bus slow down, and he stops pretty much every block. At each stop, he activates the kneeler, dropping the bus lower to the ground and making steps easier to reach. He says drivers are only supposed to do this when a customer asks, but he does it anyway. He knows elderly riders appreciate it.

The interaction between passenger and driver is often only seconds - they swipe or show him their pass, and then take a seat. Yet over weeks and years, rich relationships can develop.

Smitty was heading west on Tasker, passing 16th, and saw a man sitting on his step. He yelled out the window, "Yasa! Kalimera." ("Hello! Good morning.")

The man smiled broadly and waved back. A regular passenger, he has been teaching Smitty to speak Greek.

Betty Brewington was going to Walmart, at the end of the line, but stayed on the bus to just ride with Smitty for a while. "This will be my last chance," she said.

She will see him again. Years ago, she and another passenger invited him to the annual party in the 1500 block of Stillman Street (along the route). He's now a regular.

"He's my therapist," said Lisa Beth Rodriguez, on her way to work at the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. She often shares her bounty with Smitty, and gave him a fresh pineapple the other day. "I'm grieving now over the loss of my nephew in a car accident," she said, "and Smitty listens to me."

Alice Fine, 76, another regular, says that going anywhere with her 44-year-old intellectually disabled son is stressful. "Knowing that somebody's smiling at him makes all the difference in the world," she said. "Smitty is always kind to Chris.

"That's when I started realizing Smitty always lets the elderly people sit down before he starts the bus again," Fine added. "He lets people cross the street in front of him. I'm really going to miss him."

Smitty graduated from South Philadelphia High School and after four years in the Marines, came home from Vietnam and bounced around. He worked in a bakery for a morning, but quit during his break because it was too hot in the kitchen.

He drove a forklift in a glass factory for a full day, but cut his head on shattered glass and didn't go back.

He worked three years in a slaughterhouse.

He realized by age 30 that his heart was in driving a bus. He's not sure why. Maybe a bus driver was kind to him as a boy.

In 36 years, SEPTA confirmed, he's never taken a sick day.

He has a safe driving record the last 33 years, and several times has been named driver of the month. He doesn't sweat the tight squeezes, or the snow, or the traffic, or rude or impatient passengers. "I'm blessed, not stressed," he said.

Donnecia Brown, from Raleigh, N.C., works for City Year, a one-year program that is part of AmeriCorps, and rides Smitty's bus to her school every morning. "Though I am a temporary resident," she told him, "you make me feel at home."

He will miss the people. But Smitty saved his money, paid off his house in Delaware, and prepared for this moment.

His wife, Lorri, will continue working at a pharmaceutical company; she wants him to take college classes. So far, his only real plans are to buy a convertible and spend more time at his church, Mount Joy United Methodist in Wilmington.

He's already in the choir, but making evening practices was difficult when bedtime was 7:30 p.m. For years, he's been getting up at 2:30 in the morning to spend an hour on the elliptical trainer before work (his first stop was 6:15 a.m.). He's trim and takes no medications.

He wrote a farewell poem, which he has given out to his passengers:

The wheels on the bus go round and round and for 36 years I've been making that sound . . .

It was fun while it lasted, and lasted while it was fun, but this Old Bus Pro is finally done.

 


mvitez@phillynews.com

215-854-5639 @MichaelVitez