When Mary Sumrow started out as a driver for Community Traction Co., the heaters on the buses rarely worked, outside air blew in through holes in the floor, and steering was strenuous physical exercise.
"As women, we could not wear pants" - skirts were mandatory, Mrs. Sumrow recalled yesterday. "We honestly used to have to put cardboard around our legs in the winter to keep the cold air out."
That was in 1968. Last week, Mrs. Sumrow, the last Community Traction driver still employed by the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, retired. "I give honor to God for allowing me to work 36 years and seven months," Mrs. Sumrow said during a brief ceremony yesterday at which the TARTA Board of Trustees recognized her service.
Jim Gee, the transit authority's general manager, said Mrs. Sumrow was known as "the Watch-Your-Step Driver" because she unfailingly gave that advice to all passengers before they stepped off her bus.
"She's been an excellent driver, and we will miss her. She was one of those drivers we could count on for filling in and helping us out with overtime," Mr. Gee said.
Mrs. Sumrow, 58, widow of the Rev. Fred L. Sumrow, was the first African-American and first woman to become TARTA's most senior driver, reaching No. 1 on the roster in 2002. Her driving record qualified her for 10 consecutive bus "roadeos" and safety award banquets.
Her retirement leaves Wilbur Williams, a bus mechanic, as the last Community Traction seniority holder at TARTA, which took over local bus operations June 1, 1971.
Community Traction was struggling to pay the bills in its final years, but after the system went public, equipment and facilities steadily improved, Mrs. Sumrow said. Any drivers who complain today about working conditions have no memory of what it was like without air conditioning, automatic transmission, or power steering, she said.
"This was our power," she grinned, posing her right arm like a body builder's.
Back then, Mrs. Sumrow said, drivers had to carry their fare boxes into the office at the end of their shifts, after having to park their buses over maintenance pits at the garage.
Mrs. Sumrow said she sought out work at Community Traction at age 21 after she and her husband gained legal custody of her four younger siblings from her father. The eldest of the four was 14 at the time, and their father wasn't paying much attention to them, she said.
She had taken a civil service examination with the post office before applying to become a bus driver, but didn't hear back from the U.S. Postal Service until she'd been with Community Traction for a year.
"I had a choice between walking through the bad weather [as a letter carrier] or driving in it," she said. "I decided I'd rather be driving. Plus, I was afraid of dogs."
Driving in winter was a learning experience, with ice being the most treacherous.
"I remember the first time I slid a bus," Mrs. Sumrow said. "It was scary. That was better than Cedar Point."
Over the years, she drove routes all over the Community Traction and TARTA networks, most recently assigned to the Maumee Call-A-Ride route. Mrs. Sumrow treated all passengers with respect but tolerated no foolishness on her bus.
"I could not afford to be distracted as a driver. It is a very serious thing when you are carrying live cargo," she said.
Mrs. Sumrow faithfully wore her full TARTA uniform, complete with hat, to work every day. She said the only other driver she could think of who wears the hat every day is Jim Tingley, who succeeds her as No. 1 on the drivers' roster.
Mrs. Sumrow and her husband, a pastor at several African Methodist Episcopial Zion churches in the region during his life, took annual missionary trips to the Virgin Islands during her vacations, and they were active with Toledoans United for Social Action. She carried a Bible with her at work, reading it during breaks and placing it on the dashboard when she was driving.
Mrs. Sumrow plans to continue missionary work and also hopes to become a college-level math teacher. To pursue the latter, she has a year to go on her bachelor's degree in business administration, then will begin master's studies.
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