Since my story that ran in The Clarion-Ledger today was chopped for space, here is the full version. Blogs allow me as much space as I want:
On cold mornings, Mr. Henry would come to work early and crank all the vehicles so they would be warm inside when the other bus drivers arrived.
He kept a list of all the children on his bus route, recording their names addresses and birthdays so he and his wife could send them birthday cards and small surprises throughout the years.
And when he battled cancer and underwent chemotherapy, Mr. Henry continued to ride the bus with “his children” on the days he felt well enough, even when another driver was behind the wheel.
Henry Wiltcher, a man who told others his mission was to be of service to the world, did it by driving a bus.
He passed away Thursday after spending more than a decade as a Rankin County School District driver, and he is being mourned by teachers, students and colleagues — many of whom could not bring themselves to speak about him Thursday morning without crying.
“When he was sick over the last few years, he rode the bus in the mornings and evening whenever he was well enough, even when another driver was on there,” she said. “He was going to make sure his kids were taken care of.
“He also had a little form the children filled out when they rode his bus, and every year, he would send out birthday cards and put a five dollar bill in them.
“At Christmas time, his wife made little ornaments and gave out refrigerator magnets with ‘hugs’ written across them, and sweet little things like that.
“And a couple of years ago when they split the bus route, many children cried because they didn’t get his route. I cried when I heard he died.”
Many were overcome with sadness at Highland Bluff Elementary, a K-5 school with about 700 students where Mr. Henry last worked. Bookkeeper Cindy Freeman said he always remembered her daughter’s summer birthday.
“My son, Nathan, was born on Valentine’s Day, and every year about this time, Mr. Henry would say, ‘Our boy has a birthday coming up.’ Nathan rode his bus when he was 12. Now he’s 21, but Mr. Henry still remembered him.”
First grade teacher Wendi Wilder said he was like sunshine.
“There wasn’t a birthday or Christmas that went by that he didn’t give every child that rode his bus some kind of happy,” she said. “Both my children rode his bus, and for their birthday, they got $5.
“They respected him. Parents respected him, and we are going to miss him terribly. He definitely was our little angel up here at Highland Bluff.
“My son, Noah, (11) just told me last night when I was telling him that Mr. Henry was sick and he wasn’t getting better — he said ‘No other bus driver will ever love me like Mr. Henry did on that bus route.’”
Cher Switzer, a kindergarten assistant teacher, said her son, Taylor, rode Mr. Henry’s bus about eight years.
“My father passed away two years ago with cancer, and Mr. Henry had been diagnosed before,” she said. “He had so many encouraging words for me and my son. He took him aside and told him how wonderful heaven would be.
“I had a mother call me this morning. She said Mr. Henry had gotten off the bus, walked up to them and gave them a handmade cross and a little bag of candy the last day of school before Christmas break. We had a little bit of heaven on this earth while he was here.”
Diana Momberg, school counselor, said McKaylen Baldridge, a second grader who had ridden Mr. Henry’s bus since kindergarten, said he liked all colors, but his favorite color was blue.
“She told me ‘I wanted my 3-year-old sister to ride Mr. Henry’s bus one day, and now she will never get to do that,’” Momberg said.
The school sent a letter home to parents, choosing to let them tell their children about Mr. Henry’s death, but some had already heard, Momberg said.
“Tomorrow we will have some counselors available to handle the kids,” she said.
Henry Wiltcher, 75, attended Hollandale High School. He farmed for a while, sold tools for a while, and later became manager and part owner of Leland Tire Service, where he pumped gas, checked oil and fixed flats for country farmers.
When he retired from the service station, he moved to Brandon and became a bus driver for the Rankin School District more than 10 years ago, working at schools in Flowood, Northwest Rankin High School and Highland Bluff.
During his career, he was given the “Over, Above and Beyond the Call of Duty Award” for being a dedicated bus driver.
Wiltcher married his second wife, Louise, in 1977, and their blended family included seven children. The kids at First Baptist Church of Fannin called him “Papaw Henry.” And after battling several rounds of throat and neck cancer, including a recent recurrence, he passed away Thursday of complications due to pneumonia.
“He touched everyone he was in contact with, even the nurses at the hospital,” said his daughter, Lynn Broussard.
Jeff White, assistant principal and transportation director of the Northwest Rankin School Zone, began working with Mr. Henry in August of this year.
“What makes him unique is he put others first,” White said. “He used say, ‘I just pray every day and night that I can be a blessing to someone.’”
Second grade teacher Donna Miele lived in New Orleans for 50 years before Hurricane Katrina brought her to Jackson. She met Mr. Henry while working as a substitute teacher at Flowood Elementary.
“Every day, I couldn’t wait to see him because he would cheer me up,” she said. “He always told me that God brought me here because he had a purpose for me.”
Miele said he positively impacted many people.
“He embodied to me true goodness and enriched my life in ways that can never be replaced by anybody else,” she said. “Not having my father anymore — he brought that back for a while. I don’t know what I’m going to do without him.”
Miele called his work ethic “perfect” and said he cherished his job.
“The last thing we talked about was heaven,” she said. “I asked him the other day, ‘What do you think heaven will be like?’ He said, ‘It will be absolutely wonderful and beyond anything our eyes can imagine. I’m ready when the Lord wants me.’
“We talked a lot about life and God and purpose. Mr. Henry was more than just a bus driver. He was The Bus Driver.”