published Monday, August 25th, 2014

CARTA's most senior drivers retire

Former CARTA Exectutive Director Tom Dugan, left, congratulates Fred Wheeler, center, and Charles Stoudemire Friday during their retirement party at the CARTA offices.
Former CARTA Exectutive Director Tom Dugan, left, congratulates Fred Wheeler, center, and Charles Stoudemire Friday during their retirement party at the CARTA offices.
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    A bus cake is among party food at Fred Wheeler and Charles Stoudemire's retirement celebration Friday at the CARTA offices.
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One million miles will take you around the earth 40 times or to the moon and back twice.

In the case of Charles Stoudemire and Fred Wheeler, the two most experienced bus drivers at CARTA, 1 million miles will take the course of your career.

"I've given it all I can," said Stoudemire, who along with Wheeler retired this month. "I've enjoyed it and I'm ready to retire."

Stoudemire's last day of work is today, his 62nd birthday.

He and Wheeler have more than 80 years' driving experience between them, with Stoudemire at 37.5 years and Wheeler, the most senior driver, at 42.8 years.

Wheeler turned 65 on Aug. 18. He's on vacation until he officially retires Aug. 31.

"I'll miss my co-workers. I will miss my passengers. I don't think I'll miss driving. I'm tired of driving," said Wheeler.

He said he's looking forward to fixing computers as a hobby.

Stoudemire wants to restore his 1949 Ford truck.

Both drivers hold Driver of the Year titles issued by the Tennessee Public Transportation Association. Stoudemire is the state of Tennessee's 2010 Urban Driver of the Year. Wheeler said he forgot the year, but he was also selected Driver of the Year for Southeastern Tennessee.

The two are CARTA's only drivers hired in the 1970s when the CARTA bus station was located in downtown Chattanooga at Market and Third streets, said Veronica Peebles, CARTA's manager of communications.

"We're celebrating the longevity of these two gentlemen," said Peebles, before hosting a retirement party in their honor Friday.

Wheeler started working at CARTA in 1971 when Southern Coach owned the transportation system, he said. The name change to CARTA didn't come until 1974.

Wheeler considered quitting CARTA in the 1980s after federal funding for public transportation was cut. He was so serious that he earned his license to drive a commercial truck. He expected commercial driving to be his next job if CARTA dissolved.

But more funding came and Wheeler kept his job for decades afterward.

Both drivers say they're going to miss their passengers.

"You get to know them so well that you know where they get on and off the bus and you look for them when they're not in place," said Stoudemire.

Stoudemire said he will also miss the bus rodeo competitions.

He won first place eight times during local rodeo competitions and won first place four times at the state level. He also placed fourth at an international rodeo, he said.

He liked meeting and competing with other drives from around the country.

Stoudemire said he's also grateful for the relationship he's had with CARTA's top officials. His relationship with Tom Dugan, CARTA's previous head of command, might have contributed to drivers getting rings in addition to gold blazers for being in CARTA's Million Mile Club, he said.

Only bus operators who drive 1 million miles without causing any accidents can be in the club. The previous award was a gold jacket. Stoudemire told Dugan that drivers who earned the jackets could only wear them to black tie occasions. If they had a ring, he suggested, they could wear it more often.

Dugan started purchasing the rings for the Million Mile drivers and it's become a tradition since then, said Stoudemire.

Stoudemire and Wheeler are both in the Million Mile Club.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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