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Caroline Doughty makes her last stop

Old Lyme — Caroline Doughty was like any other parent bringing their kids to school. The difference is she drove them on a bus.

Doughty's last day as a bus driver for Lyme-Old Lyme schools is Oct. 30. She turns 72 in November, and is retiring from her career after 48 years — she started in 1972 — of getting kids where they needed to go.

Her longevity and her friendly nature endeared Doughty to scores of students, parents, teachers and administrators, which is to say, this is not an average retirement. This is a woman who continued working through the repeated shuffling of principals and superintendents as well as six different bus companies, a woman who drove generations of students to school, sometimes driving the children of those same students years later.

Doughty was recognized by the school district during at an Oct. 7 Board of Education meeting. Superintendent Ian Neviaser detailed parts of her career, and the board thanked her for her service and presented her with a plaque and flowers.

"Some of her work has included driving students daily to each of the schools, bringing athletic teams to their games, and providing transportation for field trips," Neviaser said. "At times, she drove residents out of the South Lyme Point O' Woods Beach area when it flooded. She also drove for the Special Olympic games that took place in the area during the 1990s."

Doughty framed her personal milestones within her career timeline — she said she was driving a bus in '72, married in '73 and had her son in '74. He started riding the bus with her when he was just nine months old. She had her daughter in '76.

"With the kids at school, I was off when they were off, snow days off when they were off, so it was a great job to do and raise my kids," Doughty said. "I used to drop them off and pick them up. Once they got to middle school, they didn't really want me doing that anymore. They grew up, went to college, and I just kept driving."

Caroline Doughty's son, Bryan, 46, is the president of the New London Kiwanis Club and a member of New London's Board of Education.

"As I got older, she didn't drive my bus route too often, she was assigned to different routes, but she did drive a lot of sporting events and different things," Doughty said. "At the time, I probably didn't enjoy my mother driving the bus to watch me play baseball, but I do now."

He added that for his mother to not change jobs while working under six separate bosses, "you have to be kind of special."

"I think from her point of view, seeing the kids become parents and then having kids, is something she really enjoys," Bryan Doughty said. "Maybe she's a safety net in a sense. If you felt safe as a child while she drove your bus, you probably feel safe as a parent to put your kid on her bus."

Although she made certain the students respected her, Doughty was no authoritarian. Her son describes her as a tolerant, conscientious person who goes about her work in a serious manner and is always on time. Known affectionately as "Mrs. Doughty" when on the job, all it took was one glance in the mirror, or, worst case, a chat with parents or trip to the principal's office, for a kid to know when they'd done wrong.

Acknowledgment from parents and kids has meant much to Doughty, especially in light of her retirement.

"I hadn't seen this one child since school started this year, and recently he got on the bus and he had flowers for me — his mom wanted to say 'thank you,'" Doughty said. "One of my mothers put out a sign on the side of the road saying, 'Welcome back, and have a good school year Mrs. Doughty.' It's the kids and the parents that kept me going. They always appreciated that stability, that I was there all the time. I'd work all year and I wouldn't take time off."

Doughty's Christmas tree is filled with gifted ornaments she's accrued during her career, evidence of a special connection she developed with families. In the past, she knew two little boys in school who didn't take her bus, so she went to the school office and asked why their mother brought them to school. Once the mother talked to other parents and learned of Doughty's reputation, she put her kids on the bus, which they rode until they graduated.

Sometimes, a kid will get their license, and they'll thank and say goodbye to Mrs. Doughty, or they'll come back on the bus later on to check in with her.

"On the first day of school this year a kid said, 'Gee Mrs. Doughty, I got my license, I won't be on the bus, but I appreciate what you've done.' And I told them, 'I'll be here when your car runs out of gas,'" Doughty said.

She has been versatile. Rewind to the summer of 1985, Doughty helped her employer, a bus company based in Chester, when a dam broke in Essex, causing a camp to lose their swimming area. All summer, Doughty shuttled the campgoers to another watering hole up the road.

While other drivers have characterized Doughty's current crop of students as a "church group," she has had some difficult children in the past. Instead of making them into a rival, though, Doughty has always labored to grow a relationship with them even if, as one first-grader told her, they refuse to do anything she asks of them.

"Though you're a bus driver and just picking up the kids, you still have to deal with what's going on in their lives," Doughty said. "The effort you put in can end up helping out. All kids are different. Some have problems we don't know about."

After graduating high school, Doughty worked as a waitress. She was hoping to find a new gig, and an acquaintance who was a bus driver in Old Lyme told her she should become a driver. She did, and it ended up fitting well with raising her children.

Though they varied throughout her career, as did the grade levels she drove, Doughty's hours were something like 6 a.m.-9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Doughty was effusive in her praise for the school system. She called attention to the differences in her job today posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The buses used to be full. I'd have a 72-passenger bus with 72 kids on board, that was a handful," Doughty said. "But now I've got five kids at the high school. The Lyme Consolidated School is like 20 kids."

Driving a school bus in general has become a fraught profession this year. Some drivers have decided not to get behind the wheel, either because their age or a health condition made them especially vulnerable to COVID-19's effects, or because they live with or care for someone who is at risk. In September, The Day reported a shortage of bus drivers in the region and a drastically reduced amount of students on the bus.

That is not why Doughty is retiring.

"They didn't want me to leave, but I said, 'Hey, I want to be 72,'" Doughty said. "My husband retired seven years ago. We don't do that much, but we have it all together here, and I want to enjoy some time. I'm hoping I'll be able to do that — I have two kids and five grandchildren."

She's looking forward to not waking up at 5 a.m. every morning. Her retirement plans include enjoying gardening, sewing, knitting and her family. She and her husband Vincent have been married for 47 years and are lifelong residents of Old Lyme.

Doughty's departure leaves a vacuum the size of almost half a century. Still, her lessons for current and future bus drivers, such as how to turn a gaggle of kids into a church group, live.

"You go to the principal if you have to. And the parents are there. If you want something, just talk to them at the door," Doughty said. "If Johnny's giving me a problem, I just say, 'Hey, we're going to see your mom when we get to the bus stop.' Or, 'When we get to school, we should see the principal.' They'll go: 'Oh no, you don't have to do that!'"

s.spinella@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Superintendent Ian Neviaser's last name.

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