2018-01-05 / Front Page

‘Mint Man’ Great Person 2017: Phil Terrano

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

The Great Person of 2017, as voted by Sentry readers, is Phil Terrano, seen in his “office” with South Portland’s Small Elementary School student, Reuban Seffer-Weng, who nominated Terrano for the honor. (Duke Harrington photo)The Great Person of 2017, as voted by Sentry readers, is Phil Terrano, seen in his “office” with South Portland’s Small Elementary School student, Reuban Seffer-Weng, who nominated Terrano for the honor. (Duke Harrington photo)SOUTH PORTLAND — The winner of the Sentry’s annual Great Person Award does not actually live within the coverage area of the newspaper, but Phil Terrano of Buxton has a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of South Portland students every single day.

Terrano is the driver of Bus No. 7 and as such, is the first representative of the South Portland School Department many students meet each morning, and the last one they wave goodbye to in the afternoon. Ever mindful of this fact, Terrano greets each with a smile and, as often as not, drops them safely back home with one of his trademark Lifesaver mints.

“I think of the school system as a wheel with spokes in it. Well, I’m one of those spokes, and every spoke has something it contributes,” Terrano said in a Jan. 2 interview. “Kids come on the bus and maybe they’re having a bad morning, or maybe they just don’t get a lot of encouragement at home – you never know what someone’s home life is like – so, I start out just trying to brighten their day. In the afternoon, after the kids have been in a controlled environment all day, the rides are a little rougher sometimes, I admit, but I just really enjoy it.

“Driving a school bus is a bit like being a teacher,” Terrano said. “I don’t teach, of course, but I mean in the sense of being entrusted with the well-being of other people’s children. The only difference is, instead of 24 kids in a classroom, I have three times as many in one-quarter of the space – and then I have to turn my back to them.”

Terrano was nominated to be recognized for his everyday kindness by Reuban Saffer-Meng, a grade five student at Small Elementary School.

“Phil is many students’ bus driver, but he is more than just that,” Saffer-Meng wrote in his letter to the Sentry. “Every day, he passes out Lifesavers to the students, and although some think it is to reward us for our behavior, Phil says it is just a random act of kindness. Sometimes to liven up the bus ride a bit more, he does ‘Phil Airlines,’ in which he pretends that the bus is an airplane, an act all of the students enjoy greatly. He makes realistic remarks such as, ‘There may be slight turbulence,’ when the road is bumpy, and when we reach the destination he says he, ‘Hopes you enjoyed your flight.’

“As well as Phil Airlines, every once in awhile, when we have extra time after we get to our destination, he blasts classic rock or disco music and as he sings along to the songs, all of the students have a dance party,” Saffer-Meng wrote. “These are just a few examples of how Phil brightens our days and deserves the Great Person Award.”

Terrano, 55, has worked in the South Portland School Department for 18 years, the last eight as a bus driver. Born to the East Deering area of Portland, Terrano entered military service out of high school, and after college, became a certified executive housekeeper. He worked as a custodial supervisor at Maine Medical Center and then as the director of food service and housekeeping at the Seaside Healthcare assisted living center in Portland.

Terrano then got a job at the Boise Cascade paper mill in Rumford and was soon transferred to a plant in Alabama where he led the central receiving department. But after a layoff in early 2000, Terrano moved his family back to Maine in search of cleaning jobs. As it turned out, the person he was referred to in South Portland had worked with him at Maine Medical Center and was also the mother of a buddy he’d entered the service with.

Not needing to cite references to prove his work ethic, Terrano easily landed a job as a custodian in the school department. He later transferred to the bus garage as an assistant mechanic and part-time bus driver. But five years later, the Portland School Department briefly pulled out of an agreement in which South Portland mechanics also maintain the Portland fleet. During that time, Terrano started driving full time, a job he’s held year round for the past eight years.

“What initially drew me was the mechanic side of it, because that was something new for me,” Terrano said. “I never really thought of bus driving as a career, for me.

“But when Portland came back, they asked me if I wanted to go back to the garage and, after just driving for a while, I was like, you know, in the garage, it’s cold, you have to work with your hands up over your head all day, stuff dripping down onto you all the time, I think I’ll just stay with the bus driving,” Terrano said, with a chuckle.

Terrano did add custodian duties back into his wheelhouse for a while, but found last year that, with the shortage of bus drivers experienced in recent years at schools statewide, he was logging more than 70 hours per week. So, this year, he’s cut back to just driving.

But, as popular as he is with students, with his cheerful demeanor, Lifesaver candies, and trivia questions – keeping youngsters engaged by asking if they know why the flag they just passed is at half-staff, or on a particularly cold morning, if they count how many days it will be until spring – Terrano did not initially think he was cut out to deal with children so directly every day.

“When I first started, I had a student that, every morning, I said, “Good morning,” and he wouldn’t even look at me,” Terrano recalled. “This went on for maybe three months, and I was like, wow, kids won’t even respond to me, maybe I’m just not cut out for this job. But I remember, I was dropping him off at a daycare one afternoon, and maybe I wasn’t as cheerful as I usually tried to be – you know, sometimes you have a rough week working with kids, and I think I was really starting to question if this had been the right move for me – well, this student started to get off the bus, got about two steps down, stopped, turned around, came back, and this kid who hadn’t spoken a word to me in three months, came up, gave me this great big hug and said, ‘I love you, Phil.’

“I saw him and his parents a few months after that at a movie theater and I told his mother, ‘You know, that just really made my day.’

“I think that’s when I learned that kids are always really paying attention,” Terrano said. “You think they don’t care, but they are watching you every minute, and every moment sinks in, and makes a difference.”

That lesson came home again more recently for Terrano when he was at a ballgame in Westbrook with one of his three children. As he sat in the stands, a young boy walked by several times, staring intently at Terrano with each trip. As it turns out, the boy had ridden on Terrano’s bus a short while, and when Tarrano – not recognizing the former charge but sensing a pattern to the frequent fly-bys – asked if he could help the child, the boy exclaimed, “Are you the mint man?”

After a moment’s pause to work out the meaning of the question, a light bulb went off and Terrano acknowledged that, yes, he was indeed, “The Mint Man.” Then, reaching into his pocket for one of the candies that have been an ever-present companion in the many years since he quit smoking, handed it over.

“I really don’t have any rhyme or reason to how or when I give them out,” Terrano said. “It’s not like they’re intended as a bribe for behaving on the bus, or not acting out. They just are. Just because. But it goes to show you how kids really absorb everything you do, how even the seemingly most insignificant interactions carry weight, and how they impact every moment of that child’s life going forward.”

Terrano’s familiar No. 7 bus is a 2004 Freightliner, with more than 163,500 miles on it. It is, he notes, “ready to be retired.” Between morning and afternoon runs, shuttling students, like Saffer-Meng’s advanced and gifted class, around the district during the day, and athletic trips in the evening, and adding in rec department and other rides during the summer, Terrano logs, on average, more than 100 miles behind the wheel every day.

“You have to be alert all the time,” he says. “It’s a challenge, of course, just trying to keep control of that many kids and still drive the bus safely as the same time. And then, when you add Maine weather on top of that, it really takes it to a whole other level.”

Terrano says he was first was reluctant to accept Saffer-Weng’s nomination of him as a Great Person, asking if maybe there wasn’t a teacher or school administrator he’d prefer to recognize instead.

“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I don’t look at myself that way – as a ‘Great Person.’ And I’m not a huge, outgoing person, either,” he explained. “It’s just that my parents raised me to be who I am. I was always kind of taught, ‘It’s not what you get in life, it’s what you give.’ So, I’ve just always been that kind of person.”

“I’m flattered,” Terrano said, “but, really, I’m more happy for Reuben. This is something he wanted to do and he was able to do that. So, I think it was a great learning experience for him.”

Still, ever humble, Terrano asked that his recognition as the Sentry’s Great Person for 2017 be taken by readers as a nod for all bus drivers. In particular, he asked that people remember Charles Albert Poland Jr., a veteran school bus driver killed in Ozark, Alabama, in 2013, while trying to protect children from an adult intruder onto a bus. Given a note demanding he hand over two children, Poland instead unlatched the bus’ emergency exit and blocked the intruder’s way while the youngsters escaped. Poland took four bullets to the chest and the kidnapper got away with one 5-year-old boy whom he held in a bunker for several days, but Poland successfully saved the rest from harm.

“He gave his life for those kids, and I guess I feel the same way,” Terrano said. “If someone tried to get on my bus and take one of my kids, good luck.

“The parents send their children to school, and when they put them on the bus, they expect them to get to school safe, and to get home safe. So, anytime that doesn’t happen that’s not good,” Terrano said. “That’s why, when a child tries to stand up in their seat on the bus, or something like that, I say, ‘I don’t think your parents would be very happy with me if you got hurt.’ There are smiles and mints and pleasant greetings and all that, but parents put their children’s lives in my hands every day, and my No. 1 job is to keep them safe.”

“So,” Terrano said, “I would dedicate this recognition to Mr. Poland, and to all the bus drivers out there who do the same, every single day,”

Recent winners of the Sentry’s annual Great Persons Award:

2017 — Phil Terrano
2016 — Liz Darling
2015 — Russ Lunt
2014 — Michele Danois
2013 — Helen Vinal
2012 — Judy Magnuson
2011 — Rose West

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