At 93 years old, Bourbon County bus dispatcher still shares his love of learning

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Every morning 93-year-old Doug Ahrens announces a color of day as he dispatches the Bourbon County school buses. Brenna R. Kelly, Nov. 6, 2015
Every morning, 93-year-old Doug Ahrens announces a color of day as he dispatches the Bourbon County school buses.
Photo by Brenna R. Kelly, Nov. 6, 2015

By Brenna R. Kelly
Brenna.kelly@education.ky.gov

More than 22 years after leaving the classroom, Doug Ahrens is still teaching science.

Sitting in the Bourbon County bus garage behind the middle school where he taught for much of his 35-year career, the 93-year-old pulls out a Christmas ornament.

He holds up the silver glass ball and asks Bourbon County Superintendent Amy Baker to look at her reflection.

He then quickly shatters the ornament and tells her to look at her reflection again – this time inside the broken bulb.

“Now what do you see?” he asks.

“I’m upside down,” she replies.

“There’s your lens,” he tells her.

It’s a quick lesson in concave and convex lenses from the man who spent more than three decades teaching – without missing a day of work.

“That’s how I taught,” said Ahrens. “I taught by examples.”

During his 58 years at Bourbon County schools, Ahrens has been a science teacher, social studies teacher, coach, bus driver, maintenance worker, cafeteria worker, substitute teacher and in his current role – a bus dispatcher.

The district recently honored Ahrens, naming a street after him and giving him an engraved silver tray he proudly displays in the garage.

“It’s just such an honor to be able to work with people that have such strong work ethic and just bring so much to our district,” Baker said. “So many of our students and their parents and grandparents all know Mr. Ahrens or have had him in class. He has quite the following.”

Every school day just before 5:30 a.m., Ahrens drives his red pickup truck a few blocks from his apartment to the bus garage, where he climbs into his chair and makes his first broadcast of the morning.

“Good morning out there in yellow bus land, the official time is now 6 o’clock in the morning,” he says into the microphone. “I hope today is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet – don’t forget that’s the color spectrum. Today is Friday – so you can dress down today. Monday is red. You guys and gals be careful out there.”

His message always includes a color of the day, said Jim Cleaver, transportation and maintenance director. Nurses at area clinics use Ahrens’ color of the day to choose their scrubs, he said.

“It’s unbelievable when I’m out in the town, people will tell me, ‘I heard Mr. Ahrens this morning. We just enjoy listening to him so much in the morning,’” Cleaver said.

The nurses, police officers, emergency medical personnel and other Paris scanner listeners will call Cleaver if Ahrens isn’t on the radio just to make sure he’s OK, he said.

In the afternoon, he keeps track of the substitute buses between the high school and middle school and makes sure the schools know which buses to use.

Dispatching the buses allows Ahrens to remain the part of the district that has been his home for nearly six decades.

After serving five years in the Navy, in the summer of 1957 Ahrens was at a YMCA camp he helped start in his native Connecticut when the Bourbon County superintendent called to offer him a job at Clintonville Elementary.

When the middle school opened, he moved there and has played numerous roles.

“Sometimes I got paid to work in the kitchen, for being a custodian, for teaching and I got paid to drive the bus,” Ahrens said. “They each came from different departments and they told me I was the only one in the county who got four checks.”

But teaching was his passion. Ahrens wanted to be a teacher from the time he started school.

“I had fun as a student,” he said. “I was the room rat. I filled the ink bottles and I cleaned the pens with a razor blade. I learned by doing things because I was the teacher’s pet.”

And that’s how he taught. Ahrens believes students learn by doing, so in his classes students built model cars powered by batteries they built. When he taught social studies, Ahrens dressed as historical figures.

His teaching methods also were different than most of his peers. Instead of writing his lessons on the chalkboard, Ahrens lined his board with papers and wrote his lessons on top. He then took pictures and put them in his lesson planning book.

“Why would I erase everything I did one day and have to start all over again,” he said. “If I had these, I could do the same thing next year and know what I’m doing.”

Ahrens retired from teaching full time in 1993, but continued to substitute teach. He’s seen technology come into the classroom and he’s not a fan.

“The students aren’t doing anything on their own,” he said. “They’ve lost that hands on learning and they’ve lost that independent thinking. They depend on computers.”

Though he doesn’t use a computer, Ahrens carries a cellphone, a flip phone that’s always with him. That allows Heather Courtney and her sister, Carrie, to frequently check on him.

Courtney’s parents befriended Ahrens, who never married and has no close relatives, and he became part of the family. Courtney and her sister now check in on him at his apartment, make sure he takes his medications and drive him to doctor’s appointments.

“We call him Uncle Doug,” she said. “We adopted him and he adopted us.”

Doug Ahrens displays in the Bourbon County bus garage some of the scenes from 'The Nutcracker' ballet that he recreated using dolls. Brenna R. Kelly, Nov. 6, 2015
Doug Ahrens displays in the Bourbon County bus garage some of the scenes from ‘The Nutcracker’ ballet that he recreated using dolls.
Photo by Brenna R. Kelly, Nov. 6, 2015

When he’s not at the bus garage, Ahrens spends his time making dolls and crafts – many of them for Courtney and her sister. Two rock star dolls have the girl’s names on the handles of the guitars. After they took Ahrens to see “The Nutcracker,” he made elaborate scenes with dolls acting out parts of the ballet.

He’s also building a model ship for a nursery for Courtney’s baby boy, who is due in March.

Because Ahrens can’t stop teaching, each of the projects is an opportunity for a science lesson.

A model ship becomes a lesson in cotton and the properties of oil cloth. A Native American doll’s clothes becomes a lesson in how fringe allows the rain to run off, thus keeping them dry. The pearl necklaces he designed for the sisters becomes a lesson in marine biology.

“Everything we do during the day is connected to science,” he said.

Keeping up the work ethic he had as teacher, Ahrens rarely misses a day of work, Cleaver said.

When Ahrens broke his hand a few years ago, he came to work until Cleaver alerted Courtney. Last year while his truck was in the shop, he walked the mile from his apartment to work instead of waiting for his ride.

When Ahrens broke his pelvis and wasn’t too happy about having to do physical therapy, Courtney used getting back to the bus garage to motivate her uncle.

“That’s what his focus is whenever something stops him from being able to work, he wants to do whatever he can to fix it,” she said. “Work is his motivation. This is his home. It’s where he’s comfortable. He loves being with all the guys up here. If you take this away, he’s gone.”

Ahrens doesn’t have any plans to retire from the district again. He plans to keep working at the bus garage, he said, “until I disappear in dust.”

And that’s not something he plans on doing either. Ahrens, who served in World War II and the Korean War, is on a mission to become the state’s oldest living veteran.

“One fellow is 98 now, he’s the oldest,” he said. “I need to beat him.”

 

MORE INFO….

Amy Baker Amy.Baker@Bourbon.kyschools.us

James Cleaver James.Cleaver@Bourbon.kyschools.us

11 COMMENTS

  1. I was a camper at camp Jewell in CT, and am now a middle school science teacher in Seattle. I’d like to think that the positive spirit of inquiry and fun Scoobie shared with us at camp, reaches my own science students daily. What an influence!

  2. I was a student as well, I always felt Mr Ahrens was unique and sincerely interested in getting through to his students. I’m glad he’s still thriving. Thank you for all your services and many blessings Mr. Ahrens!

  3. I never had Mr. Ahrens as a teacher but I used to walk by his classroom at the Middle School and just listen to him teach with so much passion. He is one of the very few teachers left that believes that working with your hands builds character within you and others around you. I remember on our 8th grade trip to Mammoth Cave–he drove our bus and we were the 3rd one out of 4. The other two took this one exit and we kept going straight. He told us that this way, we can see the beauty of the countryside and we can brag to others what we saw. As a bus driver for Paris Ind. it thrills me that he is still working as a dispatcher–Keep Teaching Mr. Ahrens !!!!

  4. I was a 7th Grader in Doug Ahrens’ first classroom at Clintonville Elementary School. Joe Denny was the Principal. What a breath of fresh air he was, even as a brand new teacher! It took awhile for him to learn the ropes and get comfortable with the classroom, but it was clear he liked the job, even though we made it as hard on him as we could. He made learning enjoyable, and his attitude was great, making you want to please him. I am so happy he has had a long successful career in Bourbon County. He is truly an asset and it is a blessing to have known him so long ago.

    • Linda, I also was a student at Clintonville, with Mr. Denny as the Principal, I was in a class with a Linda who was born, I believe in Alaska?? Without revealing your last name, this is what I remembered… Are you this person??

  5. I have had the pleasure of working with Mr. Ahrens for several years, he is the most delightful individual I have ever met. Never a dull day, always positive and happy. Full of Fun and laughter. I think that is the secret to his longevity. I feel so very blessed to know him.

  6. Mr Ahrens was my 7th grade science teacher .

    If I remember right I think that was the only time I ever passed science . He made it fun

  7. Always a pleasure we love seeing him every weekend at jerrys he has become a part of our family’s thanks for your years of teaching it. Was always interesting

  8. Mr ahrens was my sixth grade science teacher. He made science the best part of my day. He was my favorite teacher and made a lasting impression.

  9. I taught at the Junior High School when Doug Ahrens was teaching there.I was a beginning teacher. That was the most innovative school that I saw during my 35 years of teaching. That innovation can from Joe Denny, Doug Ahrens and others. It was a wonderful experience for all,students as well as staff.

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