When the bus doors opened, John Giles offered riders a greeting as warm as the engine.
“Hey there! Where are we going today?” Giles asked a young girl accompanying her mother Thursday morning.
Giles, 70, has been driving city buses through Raleigh since 1969. He’s seen almost every inch of the city and has made friends with many of its bus riders.
“There’s usually a nice lady sitting there with a Popsicle or a cold Coke,” Giles said as he passed a bench on Oberlin Road.
Giles on Thursday slid out of the driver’s seat and stepped off his GoRaleigh bus for the last time. After 47 years and more than 3 million miles without a non-preventable accident, GoRaleigh’s longest-tenured driver is retiring to enjoy a life of fishing, laughing with his family and visiting some of the places he’s seen on the Travel Channel.
A crowd of more than 50 people welcomed Giles with balloons and cameras as he emerged from the bus onto the sidewalk in front of Moore Square.
One of them was Terrence Dewberry, who met Giles in 1979 during a bus ride to his first job at a convenience store on Oberlin Road. Dewberry later became a bus driver and went on to serve as president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
“It’s a tough job,” Dewberry said of driving a bus. “It’s hard on your back and knees, and you have to deal with people. It can be mentally stressful. But (Giles) sets an incredibly high standard. We can all hope to be half the driver he is.”
Giles grew up on Pender Street in east Raleigh’s College Park neighborhood as the youngest of six children. After he graduated from segregated Ligon High School, his uncle, who drove an 18-wheeler at the time, encouraged him to get behind the wheel.
“It doesn’t seem like a job to me,” Giles said of driving a bus. “I’m happy to be doing them a service.”
Giles reflected on his career while navigating his final route from Moore Square to Crabtree Valley Mall on Thursday. He’s met so many people – including his wife, Debbie – and many of his regular riders describe him as a humble and caring man.
“He don’t pull out before you sit down,” said Lessie Vines, 70, who has known Giles for 30 years. Vines used to take Giles’ bus to her job as a cook at a hotel. Now she uses the route to get to Rex Hospital.
“Sometimes I come to the (bus) stop just to see him even if I don’t have a doctor’s appointment,” Vines said.
As a teenager, Giles said, he took part in civil rights protests on Fayetteville Street. Raleigh was still segregated when he started driving buses, so he used to have to eat his lunch in the basement of Hudson Belk because the restaurant on the main floor was open only to white patrons.
“You could work there, but you couldn’t eat there,” Giles said of the restaurant.
But he doesn’t dwell on those years.
“Yeah, those times were different,” Giles said. “But I found that if you treat people with respect, you usually get it in return.”
On work days, Giles woke up at about 2 a.m. and ate a bowl of Corn Flakes before starting his route at 4 a.m. He said he learned as a child the value of keeping a positive attitude regardless of his circumstances.
His passengers noticed.
“He knows he’s still got a job to do, so why be grumpy?” said Hattie Eatmon, who boarded Giles’ bus for his final ride at the Cameron Village stop.
Eatmon, 70, has known Giles 15 years and the two like to joke around. Giles, an avid fisherman, asked Eatmon why she didn’t bring him a reel on Thursday.
“I like to play with him,” she said. “I’m gonna miss him. He’s a sweet guy.”
Sherita McCullers is a friend and fellow bus driver who’s been behind the wheel 23 years. After McCullers missed a couple days of work a few years ago, Giles called her at 4:45 a.m. to make sure she was OK.
“He always gave encouraging words to his co-workers,” McCullers said. “He’s a humble man who was like a father to everyone.”
Giles took off his navy cap, kissed his wife and fought back tears as co-workers and TV camera crews surrounded him in Moore Square.
The digital sign on the bus behind him said it all: “Not in service ... thanks for riding.”