Jim Rill, a longtime bus driver and contractor, was the smiling face that many Westminster children saw at the start of their school day for 53 years.
The Carroll County School Bus Contractors Association and the Carroll County Public Schools Transportation Services Department presented him with the Top Gun Award shortly before he died July 16 after a battle with cancer.
Jim and Linda Rill served as longstanding bus drivers as well as contractors who operated three buses in the Westminster area. Linda said Jim started driving first, then encouraged her to get her license as well.
“It just became our life, and we loved it. We didn’t just do it as a job,” she said in an interview. “Jim always said it was a reason to get up in the morning, and he felt he had accomplished something by getting the kids to school safely.”
They both enjoyed forming relationships with students and their parents. Jim was known as a real grandfather type, she said.
“We’re the first one you see in the morning ... Jim had that smile on his face, if you talk to anybody,” she said.
The Top Gun Award is presented every three years at a School Bus Safety Banquet to the driver with the longest record of accident-free driving. This year’s banquet was postponed due to coronavirus-related restrictions.
When they learned that the banquet wouldn’t go forward, Linda knew Jim was up for some sort of award, but had accepted the fact that there would be no celebration this year. But then Mike Hardesty, director of the Transportation Services Department, called her and told her about the award. A small group of four surprised him at home on July 10 to present it.
“He was just overwhelmed,” Linda said.
Hardesty described Jim as a great guy who loved working with kids. He said there are many students, current and former, who know him and think fondly of him. These include Hardesty’s own children, who all had Jim or Linda Rill at some point during school.
“Me and my wife, we can attest first-hand,” he said.
To have a driver and contractor work in the field for 53 years is “extremely rare,” Hardesty said, and is quite a remarkable achievement.
And to do so with no accidents? Hardesty called it “absolutely incredible.”
The standard for what is considered an accident by CCPS is low and can include anything that causes property damage. And the penalty for not reporting an accident is a loss of certification.
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The previous recipient in 2017 was Rill’s uncle, Paul Rill, who had achieved 51 years of accident-free driving at that time and has since retired.