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Poverty in paradise:

Postcard: How a git-’er-done spirit helps one rural school district

Bus mechanic Chuck Waldroup welds, patches and otherwise keeps Inland Lakes buses on the road. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Bus mechanic Chuck Waldroup welds, patches and otherwise keeps Inland Lakes buses on the road. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

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To call Chuck Waldroup a jack-of-all-trades is, frankly, limiting. The gruff, plain-spoken Waldroup, 55, is the full-time bus mechanic for the budget-squeezed Inland Lakes Schools, a rural district in Cheboygan County spread out over 180 square miles. Salt, winter and rutted, gravel roads take their toll. So Waldroup does whatever it takes to keep the fleet of 12 buses – some with upward of 200,000 miles – safe, on the road and within budget.

“We’ve got some buses that date back to 1998,” he said. He pointed to one, parked in a row outside the maintenance garage, then escorted a visitor outside for a closer look. Pointing to the rear of the bus, he explained: “You could poke your finger right through the rust.” So last summer Waldrop cut out several sections of rusted steel, welded in new steel, did body work to smooth it out, primed it and gave it a fresh coat of school-bus yellow. He figures it would have cost the district thousands of dollars to send that work out. All this comes naturally to a man who’s been a mechanic – except for a four-year stint in the Navy – since he was 16.

From Gaylord to Grand Rapids to Traverse City, Waldroup has put wrenches to heavy trucks, motorcycles, snowmobiles, golf carts, just about anything with wheels and a motor. In his spare time, he tinkers with his Kawasaki motorcycle. He was hired in August 2013, a move district officials hoped would save the schools money. So far, it’s worked out. With regular maintenance and oil changes, Waldroup said he can keep the drive trains of the buses running smooth well over 200,000 miles. “It’s the salt – the rust – that is the biggest problem.”

A lifelong mechanic, Waldroup enjoys the fix-it aspects of this job. But he gets a special kick knowing he might send some bucks back into the classroom. “The biggest part is making sure kids get to school safely,” he said. “If there’s money saved, that money can be used elsewhere.”

– Ted Roelofs

NEXT POSTCARD: When elk is for dinner →

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