By Brenna R. Kelly
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.”
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.”
Amy Baker Amy.Baker@Bourbon.kyschools.us
James Cleaver James.Cleaver@Bourbon.kyschools.us