The University Record, April 22, 2002

Bus driver offers riders a touch of class for daily commute

By Emily Hebert
University Record Intern

Debra Williams greets incoming passengers with a smile. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
Debra Williams looks like a million bucks. The sleeves of her silk blue shirt hang delicately on her outstretched arms as her hands rest easily on the steering wheel. Pressing on the pedal with the heel of her black, square-toed, stiletto pump, she brings the bus to a halt. As she speaks, her eyes twinkle under perfect strokes of black eyeliner and lavender-brushed eyelids. “We have to wear a uniform every day, but I try to gear it up as much as I can,” she says.

Shedding the blue shirt, black necktie and black pants required of U-M transit coach operators, Williams’ true fashion sense shines through on “casual day.” A graduate of beauty school and a former cosmetologist, Williams keeps herself updated on the latest Paris fashions and has earned a reputation among her passengers and co-workers for her stylish clothing. However, husband Tony Williams says that when he first met Debra, he was attracted to more than just her beauty and style. “She also has a great personality,” he comments. “She’s a real people person.”

The couple first met in 1997. Widowed for four years after her husband died of a sudden heart attack, Debra was working as a custodian for U-M Building Services, trying to make ends meet. Tony—a U-M transit coach operator for 18 years—helped Debra get a job in Transportation Services, a job Debra says she loves. Currently, Debra works weekdays driving the commuter route, traveling from Crisler Arena to Glacier Way.

Debra says that she and Tony began dating shortly after she joined the department. They married seven months later. In addition to their jobs as U-M bus drivers, Tony is a mail carrier for Washtenaw County and a union official, while Debra is the choir director at their church in Ypsilanti.

“She’s the choir director, but I won’t sing for her,” laughs Tony, who is content with being an usher. Debra, who has been the director for 31 years, says that she could see herself as a gospel singer. Despite her musical inclinations, Debra says she is very happy driving a bus.

A former driver for Ypsilanti Public Schools, Debra has been behind the wheel of a bus for 16 years. “My goal was to do transportation,” she says. “Service was my stepping stone. I always knew that.”

While Debra provides service for others, she explains that being a U-M bus driver has other benefits. “I enjoy driving and seeing the different scenery,” she comments. “I also like talking with the students.” Debra says that, from her student interactions, she has learned more about “how the University is run.”

As she speaks, the doors of the bus swing open and a redheaded girl walks on. “Do you have any lost and found, or anything that’s been returned to you lately?” the girl asks.

“Not to me. Were you on my bus?”

“I don’t know,” the girl says uneasily, her voice trailing off.

“No? You don’t know?” Debra asks patiently, pausing slightly.

“It was a black CD case,” the girl replies sheepishly.

Deborah asks when she lost it. As the girl says she thinks it was on Thursday or Friday, Debra already is on her radio. “Hi. Yeah, we have someone asking about a black CD case . . .”

Maybe later Debra can find time for chit chat and for learning more about the workings of the University. But for right now, it’s all about service.