URBANA — Forty years ago, Louie Fonseca was a sophomore at the University of Illinois, trying to work his way through school.
"I didn't have enough money or financial aid to get me through the studying so I had to find work," said the native of Puerto Rico who grew up in Chicago, graduating from Tuley High School (now Roberto Clemente Academy) on the west side. "I started as a cook at a restaurant called Mr. Steak at University and Goodwin. One day I was reading the newspaper and I saw an ad for bus drivers. I went in and applied and they hired me. I was so happy."
He had been making $2.35 an hour as a cook.
"And that was really good money. But then I found out the MTD would pay me $4 an hour to start. That was great money. My boss at the restaurant called me into his office and made me an offer of 25 cents an hour more to stay there. I thanked him, but I said I couldn't turn down $4. We parted ways, and I've been with the MTD since."
Fonseca, now No. 1 in seniority at the MTD, will lose that status on Jan. 4 when he officially retires after 39 years as a driver, although he intends to work part-time when needed.
Soon after he started at the MTD on Aug. 20, 1973, he was working full time.
"I didn't last much longer at the UI," said Fonseca, who was working on a double major in physical education and graphic design.
He had planned only a short career at the MTD.
"All I wanted to do was save a little money so I could buy a plane ticket to go back to Puerto Rico. All of my family had returned and were living there. I just wanted to go home," he said. "But apparently I wasn't able to save up enough money."
Fonseca, 60, has gone back to Puerto Rico on occasion, most recently earlier this month to visit his ailing mother. But this is his home now.
"At one time we were all in Chicago. Then slowly but surely everybody got married and moved back to Puerto Rico and started their families over there. But I stayed. I liked Champaign-Urbana. It has a real slow pace and I love it."
Fonseca has been a witness to major changes at the MTD over 40 years.
When he started, the MTD had 25 buses and operated out of the old National City Lines bus barn at Fifth and Washington streets in north Champaign.
"The day I started they were in the process of turning over to another system. All of the buses were painted in different colors. There were red and yellow and green buses, for the different routes. The day I walked in there they were all being painted red," he said.
Tom Costello, the MTD's assistant director who started at the bus system a few months after Fonseca, explained that the MTD had operated on a grid system and that buses were painted to correspond to the route they traveled. Even the upholstery matched the route.
"But it was a maintenance nightmare," Costello said. "What happened when a bus broke down on the yellow route and you didn't have another yellow bus? They had white buses that were supposed to substitute. But it was just a bad idea."
Of the 25 buses in the fleet then (there are 100 now), 15 were new but 10 were old GM buses manufactured in 1960.
"They were from Peoria and they were a lot older. They didn't have any power steering or air conditioning. They didn't have any of the lowering systems, the kneeling feature that we have nowadays. They were not handicapped accessible at all," Fonseca said. "They were a lot hotter in the summer and a lot colder in the winter. But they were kinda nice, kinda fun to drive. Somehow they seemed easy to maneuver and they had a lot of get up and go. They were V8 diesels with a lot of power to them."
Not only did drivers not know how many miles were on the buses; they didn't know how fast they were driving. The old coaches had no speedometers.
"Only the maintenance people knew what the mileage was on those old buses because they had the records," he said. "They were really old, but they were fun to drive."
Fonseca said virtually everyone he knows is either someone he has worked with at the MTD or someone he drove, including his wife, Debbie, whom he met about 22 years ago.
"She used to be a passenger. I used to take her to work every day. One day I started talking to her and soon we were dating and the rest is history," he said of his wife who once worked at the old Jolly Roger in downtown Urbana.
There have been many memorable days at the MTD, Fonseca said, but two stand out.
One was a charter bus he drove in October 1974 to festivities at the Ford County Fairgrounds in Melvin for retiring U.S. Rep. Leslie Arends, who was stepping down after 40 years in Congress. Among the guests at the celebration was President Gerald Ford, a longtime Arends ally who had succeeded Richard Nixon as president less than three months before.
"They had two buses pick up a group of kids at the U of I. Tom (Costello, the other driver) loaded his crew on the bus and I had mine," Fonseca said. "Lo and behold we get over there to this rural area. We started unloading and it happens that my crew starts unfolding these signs to protest or whatever. They were demonstrators. I didn't know about it ahead of time. Man, there was security everywhere around the bus.
"If somebody knew it ahead of time, they didn't tell me. But they were peaceful. They didn't cause any trouble on the bus, or lead me to believe they were going to be demonstrating."
Another memory, he said, was another charter trip.
"One really good moment was when I was assigned to a charter to pick up a band at the airport. They were to perform at the Assembly Hall. I had no idea who it was," he recalled. "When I got to the airport they instructed me to pull the bus right up to the plane, right there on the tarmac. Lo and behold, it was the band called Seals and Croft.
"I got to drive them to the Assembly Hall. And they were so nice. They asked me if I was coming in to see the concert and I said, 'No,' that I had to wait outside with the bus. But their manager gave me a front-row ticket so I got to go in and watch the concert and was able to drive them back to the airport. It was the best."