'No one was like Joe': After 13 years, beloved Darien school bus driver retires

DARIEN — The role of a school bus driver is critical for so many students and parents. From that first day of kindergarten, the face of the bus driver is the first one school families see.

It is rare for that same face to be the last one they say as they graduate high school — but in the case of long-time bus driver Joe Coppola, that was the case for many.

The impact that Joe Coppola had on his Darien students over his 13-year post-retirement career as their bus driver is subtle but profound. Despite pandemic concerns edging him into retirement last year, the families with which he engaged will always remember him for his loving role in their lives.

“He’s part of our core memories of a wonderful elementary experience,” said parent Fiona Leonard, whose three children were part of what Coppola affectionately referred to as his “Fitch Avenue Gang.”

“They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” she said.

For 13 years, Coppola had the unique experience of keeping the same bus route—Route 2—which included Hindley and Holmes Elementary Schools, as well as Darien High School. Main streets included the Boston Post Road, Goodwives River Road, and Old Kings Highway South.

“I saw one group graduate, but I had them from kindergarten until they became seniors in high school,” Coppola said, noting how much the different children became meant to him over time.

“Watching them grow up and becoming young men and women, was such a pleasure to see,” he said.

“The thing I think I’ll miss the most is that I retired and I won’t see those kids graduate high school,” he said of the others he knew.

“I feel most people don’t understand what goes into the job,” said Coppola’s former supervisor Dani Belizaire, location manager with First Student, Darien. “Our drivers are the first ones that the children see each day and the last person they see at the end of the day.”

The father of two sons, with four grandchildren of his own, Coppola, now 76, never underestimated the importance of his role.

“You have to realize that you’re driving somebody else’s children,” he said. “You’re responsible for them. You’re 100-percent responsible. You have to behave properly and you have to be very careful.”

“When those parents put those kids on my bus in the morning, they were my charge and I made darn sure they got there and home safe,” he said.

“Joe, whom we affectionately refer to as ‘Uncle Joe,’ was special in that he always made it a point to get to know everyone’s name and where they lived,” explained Kate Barbieri, transportation coordinator for the Darien Public Schools.

“He always gave the parents of his students a feeling that he cared for them very much,” she said.

“I felt totally safe with my children going on that bus,” said parent Kelly Scallon, whose son and daughter rode with Coppola for years. “He was a happy face that welcomed them every morning and they loved Joe … Joe was like a grandfather.”

Along with kindness, however, Joe was known to set firm, loving boundaries with the students and adhere to them, not tolerating nonsense, such as students walking around or being disruptive.

“Joe was very old-school,” Scallon said. “He insisted the rules be followed (and) that creates a safe environment. Kids know their boundaries.”

“I was tough with those kids,” Coppola said, noting he would occasionally pull the bus over and tell them, “Not on this bus.”

“You gain their trust,” he said, which as a consequence reminds a good driver to be more respectful than ever in their role.

“We had very few disciplinary issues on those Bus 2 routes because of that care and mutual respect,” said Barbieri, making note of other longtime drivers in the Darien district who have built up equally important connections with the families on their route.

“Joe’s students respected him,” she said.

After a long career in the printing business in his native Stamford, which Coppola finally wrapped up completely in 2011, he was inspired by his granddaughter Allie to give bus driving a try.

“We had such a nice old man driving our school bus,” she told him after she started kindergarten. “Maybe you should drive a school bus.”

“The training wasn’t bad,” he remembered, mainly because as a 59-year veteran volunteer firefighter with the Belltown Fire Department, he was accustomed to driving big rigs.

“If you can drive a 44,000-pound ladder truck, you can drive a school bus,” he said.

Ultimately the pandemic—and the urging of his family members to rethink the work at this time—prompted Coppola to retire from the school bus.

“I really miss it,” he said, but he also felt it was time to move on.

“I have no problems doing this job, but God forbid that something happens … The first thing out of somebody’s mouth is gonna be, ‘What ‘s a guy who’s 76 doing driving a school bus?’,” he said.

“You get old,” he said. “You have to pack it in sooner or later.”

But now he and Shirley, his wife of 53 years, have begun their dream of living part-time in Florida.

“All the kids on the route were part of his family,” Scallon said. “I got that feeling from him.”

“You don’t see that anymore,” she said.

“He was a wonderful asset and an amazing part of our First Student family,” Belizaire said. “He is missed dearly.”

“I cannot thank him enough for his many years of service to the district and its students,” Barbieri said.

“What a guy,” Leonard said.

“It was literally like your grandfather was taking his own grandson to school,” she said. “Nobody was like Joe.”