If not for the efforts of Frank W. Cyr 50 years ago, the ubiquitous yellow school bus might be a bus of a different color today.
Green, white, bright red--just about every color of paint was used on the vehicles that carried kids to class back in 1939. Some districts painted their buses yellow, as safety experts had begun to urge, but others had the idea that red, white and blue buses would make children more patriotic.
Chaos reigned--and it didn’t end with color.
In Kansas, children traveled to school in wooden wheat wagons. In many rural states it wasn’t unusual for youngsters to ride in trucks with floorboards covered with cow manure.
To survey the school transportation mess, Cyr, then a specialist in rural education at Columbia Teachers College in New York, toured 10 states with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation grant.
Afterward he convened school administrators, school bus manufacturers and paint experts for a landmark meeting that produced a 42-page pamphlet containing the nation’s first school bus safety standards--from axles to brakes to color.
On April 26, half a century after that gathering, Teachers College plans a luncheon in honor of Cyr, now 88 and the acknowledged “father of the yellow school bus.”
As Familiar as Sunrise
“School bus yellow” became as natural to America’s morning landscape as the sunrise. More than 22 million children ride in 361,998 buses to public schools each day, said Larry McEntire, president of the National Assn. of State Directors for Pupil Transportation Services.
The formula for the high-visibility paint used on virtually all of them is on file at the National Bureau of Standards.
“It is hard to imagine today any area of education policy where you could gather people in one room and cause such a national change to occur,” said P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College.
“What the next 50 years revealed is that this simple instrument, the school bus, can be a powerful instrument in education policy,” Timpane said.
If not for national standards on buses in each district, the school consolidation movement would have stalled. There were 80,000 school districts in the 1930s. Today, there are just 16,000.
Symbol of Racial Integration
Much later, the school bus became both a symbol and engine of school desegregation.
Within a few years of the conference, about 35 states adopted bus standards. The last state, Minnesota, switched from “Minnesota Golden Orange” paint to yellow in 1974.
Safety was by no means the sole reason for standardizing school bus color, Cyr told a visitor to his white clapboard Victorian home in this northern Catskills hamlet.
Economics and bureaucratic chaos were at least as important in causing the clamor for standards during the 1930s, he said.
“Terrible” is how he described the student transportation situation.
Cyr, who had grown up in a sod house in the Republican River Valley of Nebraska and had taught in country schools, was by then a noted authority on rural education. It was his idea in the 1930s to form school cooperatives to help rural districts provide student services they couldn’t afford on their own.
The Rockefeller Foundation invited him to study the shortcomings of rural school transportation.
He drove through 10 states.
‘They Were in Trouble’
“The local districts all told me they were in trouble. They all said state officials had standards for manufacturing vehicles and kept changing them.
“The state departments were even more unhappy. They lacked expertise. They didn’t know how to establish standards.
“I visited bus companies and they were having more trouble than anyone,” Cyr continued. They had to cope with the differing rules, requirements and tastes from 48 states.
“For every different color, the bus companies had to have different booths to spray-paint them.”
Even before the conference, some school districts were using yellow buses because that color was known to be the most visible in rain or fog, Cyr said.
“A number of states wired us to ask if they should go red, white and blue. I said, ‘Please don’t do anything until we’ve had our meeting.’ ”
Cyr chuckled as he thought back. “Red, white and blue was camouflage, if you think about it. It was to make kids patriotic. It was well-meaning, but they made the buses less visible. And I don’t think it really had much effect on patriotism.”
With $5,000 in Rockefeller Foundation money, a small fortune at the time, Cyr invited state education officials from across the country, engineers from Chevrolet, International Harvester, Dodge and Ford, and paint experts from DuPont and Pittsburgh Paint to Teachers College to set bus safety standards.
When the talk turned to color, Cyr displayed 50 shades ranging from lemon yellow to deep orange-red.
There was no bitter debate, Cyr said. The group appointed a committee of education officials, and they settled on the color that has been seen on buses ever since.
Cyr likes to tell the story of how his son, Bill, once asked: “If you’re the ‘father of the yellow school bus,’ what does that make me?”
“I told him that anytime a school bus goes by, he can say, ‘There goes one of my brothers.’ ”