The man behind Route 18

By Callie Good

The bus can be heard before it is seen, rumbling up the street, brakes squealing as it pulls up to the curb. The doors open. Instead of silence or the occasional eye contact, riders are greeted with a heartfelt, “Good morning!”

This is Keith Miller. He is the driver of the Duluth Transit Authority Route 18. Even without knowing his name, students all over campus know this man, usually by something along the lines of “the-nice-guy-that-drives-bus-18.” Anyone who has ever lived at Campus Park Housing or transferred to the mall routes has been greeted in this cheerful manner. Anyone who has ever gotten off the bus at Boulder Ridge Luxury Apartments or St. Scholastica has heard, “Have a good day!” as they make eye contact in the mirror while exiting out the back door.

In my first time interviewing Miller, he portrayed his kind personality right off the bat.

“What’s this story for?” he asked me as I boarded his bus that first morning. “Specialized reporting class,” I told him.

“Ohhh,” he replied with a chuckle. “That must make me a pretty special person then!”

And a special person he is. Miller has been driving for the DTA for more than 22 years. He came to Duluth from Barre, Vermont, in 1972 to be in the Air Force, stationed at Duluth International Airport. He began driving the bus after his service because it was a steady, secure job. Miller wouldn’t tell me much about his personal life except that his family plays an active role in it. He has three adult children and one grandchild, and enjoys the outdoors, whether it’s camping or horseback riding. But it seems his passion lies in the lives he touches while driving the bus.

“I go out of my way for the passenger,” Miller said. “I work on building up a trust. To me, they’re more than just a passenger; they’re like a friend.”

It is 10:57 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Bus 18 is due to depart Kirby bus hub in three minutes. The bus is half full, but quiet. Most riders busy themselves with iPods, cell phones or snacks, anything to excuse them from being surrounded by the potentially awkward silence. People try the best they can to sit alone and keep to themselves. Miller gets on board promptly at 11 and fires up the engine. During our first meeting, he had agreed to let me ride and observe him and his passengers. So upon seeing me sitting toward the front, he greets me silently with a simple nod and smile. Miller is respectful of the quiet atmosphere and keeps to himself as he gets situated. This is different than some of the later, more chipper afternoon routes I was on, where Miller cheerfully entered by asking, “Everyone ready to go?”

The bus pulls away from the curb and onward on the never-changing route. Still silent. The boy sitting behind me answers a phone call, but speaks low and keeps it brief. Miller steers the 18 down the familiar streets with confidence and ease, continuing to greet every individual passenger with a cheerful, “Good morning!” and dismissing every departing passenger with, “Have a good day!”

While most passengers will at least smile and say, “Thank you,” very few engage in any further conversation. Out of the 35 riders that Miller greeted this particular morning, only 18 seemed to respond, with just four giving him anything more than a simple, “Hello.” I asked Miller if this is a common occurrence.

“They might not talk back the very first time. But then they recognize that I’m different and start to feel more comfortable. I’m a little more than just a driver — I care.”

One passenger boards the bus at Highland Village apartments. She must have been on the bus earlier that day, because Miller welcomes her with,  How’d you get back up here?”

“I got a ride from a friend,” she says.

“Right,” Miller laughed, “Cause you only ride my bus right?”

“Right,” she smiled back as she found her seat.

This illustrates one of the many differences between Miller and the other DTA drivers. It is obvious in his interactions with his riders that he sees them as more than just passengers; he gets to know them as people, recognizing their schedules and life styles.  As we leave the Highland Village stop, Miller honks and gives a reciprocated smile and waves to the lady doing the grounds keeping.

The bus pulls into the Boulder Ridge parking lot. A handful of students board and disperse into the remaining seats. Everyone appears to be settled and ready to go, but Miller hesitates from pulling away from the stop. After a few seconds, the doors hiss open again as a student hustles across the parking lot. Miller lets him take his time finding his card to swipe and smiles and jokes with him, rather than getting irritated at him for delaying Miller’s usual promptness. Just down the road, the bus stops at Campus Park. Four more students get on the mostly full bus. Miller waits, watching in the mirror, until all are comfortably seated before pulling out into Rice Lake Road traffic.

It’s 1:51 pm on a Tuesday afternoon about a week later.  I am just crossing the street to board the bus when I catch Miller’s eye as he heads inside for a short break.

“Hi!” he greets me. “How ya doin’?”

Miller has gotten used to me riding his bus from start to finish and treats me like an old friend. I get on the bus and take my usual spot near the front, prime location for listening and observing.

As usual, students file onto bus 18 quietly and take their seats. Miller arrives perfectly on time to depart at the top of the hour. As the bus starts leaving Kirby, a flood of students starts walking across the street. Miller stops and unlocks the doors, making sure he’s not leaving anyone behind. This again shows the difference between Miller and other drivers. While I was waiting for the bus, I saw two different students running to catch two different buses, only to be left behind with no ride and a face full of exhaust and defeat.

The bus is crowded this afternoon. We pull up to St. Scholastica to see the parking lot full of people in bright yellow shirts preparing to take part in the annual Reif Run, part of the college’s spring celebration. Three students get on board at this stop and Miller makes small talk with one girl about the race.

“We better get out of here before they start running!” he called back as she settled into her seat.

We continue along the route. No one pulls the yellow cord to request a stop at Campus Park, but Miller pulls the bus over anyway as half of the passengers file out the back door. Miller watches them in the mirror, calling back, “Have a good day!” as they exit. Most stay stone faced and quiet as they climb down the steps; only one smiles and meekly says, “Thank you.”

We stop at Central Entrance and Pecan for a few minutes to stay on track with time. Miller parks, gets out of his seat and heads to the empty back of the bus. He comes back up and asks the only other two passengers and me if we are too hot or too cold. We tell him that we’re comfortable.

“Oh good,” he says. “I noticed that the back is usually hotter so I wanted to check it out, make sure it’s not too bad. Pretty soon we’ll get the air conditioning on!”

At this point, it was hard not to wonder if he was putting a show on for me since he knew I was writing this article. So later, I asked regular Route 18 rider Erin Smith if Miller has ever asked a question like that to riders before.

“Oh yeah,” she answered. “He asks that question often. I’ve never heard it [from other drivers]. He’s the best. He seems legitimately happy to be driving his bus.”

Miller and I talk for a few minutes longer with the other two passengers cracking an occasional smile. Another bus drives past us down Central Entrance.

“That’s the bus that left downtown at 25 after,” Miller tells me. “She’s just getting up here now. She’s late.”

“You’re never late, right?” I ask.

“No. Never,” he says. “A good driver is never late. It can go one of two ways — I can either be on my time or on your time. I’m always on someone else’s time so I’m never late.”

Miller then asks me about school and if I’m ready for finals.

“And of course you’re going to pass them all and not repeat anything right?” he says. “If you don’t pass your finals, I’ll hear about it in the fall, won’t I? You’ll say, ‘Oh it was the bus driver’s fault!’ and I’ll say, ‘But I was always on time!’” He laughs as he makes his way back the drivers’ seat and takes us on our way.

It’s 1:57 P.M. on a rainy Friday afternoon. There is more of a buzz on the bus today with students anticipating the upcoming weekend. Miller is cheerful as always, making small talk with one woman toward the front of the bus. The two are talking about cooking and casually exchanging recipes. Only a few minutes into the route, Miller pulls the bus over with no sign of a stop requested. The woman he was talking food with stands up and exits the bus, seemingly used to the fact that Miller knows her stop.

Further into the route, two elderly women across from me are discussing the art class they are taking at UMD. One pulls the yellow cord and packs up her things. Miller stops the bus in the middle of the block as the woman tells her companion, “That’s my house right there, he always stops right in front of it, the dear man.”

Miller lowers the bus for her departure and says, “Have a good day, see you next week!”

“Yes. You will,” she replies with a smile, and gets off the bus.

As usual, I am the last one off the bus when we pull into Kirby bus hub. Miller thanks me for riding, also as usual. A student walks past the open front door as I am getting off and Miller calls out, “Bus 18?”

“Nope,” the students answers.

“You don’t know what you’re missing!” Miller jokes back. He looks at me and says, “Tell your friends to ride my bus, we always have a good time on my bus.”

Keith Miller is more than just a bus driver. He is a well-known figure on and around the UMD campus. During one of our talks on campus before he took off on one of his first routes of the morning, I asked Miller how long he plans to drive for the DTA.

“Unfortunately, I’ll be 62 in October, so I will retire in November. I want to travel while I still have my health, because you never know…”

Miller told me that some of the students got word of his upcoming retirement.

“They went to Chuck [manager of Boulder Ridge] and begged him to make me stay. It made me feel so good that they care so much. It shows that my impact on ‘em has been, you know, taken seriously.”

I asked Miller about his other bus driving experience. He told me that he had only driven for the DTA, but at one point was driving a route downtown.

“If I have to go back and work downtown, I’d retire now,” he said. “My passengers, you students, make my day, you’re the best in the world.”

Miller had turned off the ignition so we could hear each other better. As the red digital numbers on the scroll ticked up to 8:00 a.m., Miller fired up the engine and prepared for departure. He lowered the bus and opened the doors for me. I thanked him as I stepped down into the cool morning air.

“Thank you!” he said. “And have a good day.”

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