Buses didn’t have air conditioning and the fare was only 15 cents when Harry Burnell started driving one in 1970.
He’s been employed with the region’s public transportation system — which was run by South Carolina Electric & Gas until 1997 and by the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority since then — and has moved up to lead operations supervisor.
Burnell, who now works for TransDev, the company that has the contract to provide drivers to CARTA, will be honored next week for his 46 years of service, and for being the system’s longest-serving employee. Charles Frasier, an employee who has driven more than 3.5 million miles — more than any other driver — also will be honored.
“When you have a public service, having employees who are fixtures of the community is always a positive, said CARTA spokesman Daniel Brock. “Harry and Charles are tremendous examples of that.”
Burnell, 69, said a lot has changed since his early days as a driver.
Back then, crossing the old, narrow Cooper River bridges to and from Mount Pleasant was a harrowing experience. “Everybody was chatting, but as soon as we hit the bridge everybody went quiet,” he said. “But as a driver, I got used to it. As a driver, I knew when to slow down and keep my focus.”
But he has a lot of good memories about his passengers from back then, when Charleston was much smaller and traffic wasn’t a problem. “Drivers and passengers knew each other and looked out for each other,” he said. “We got a lot of gifts at Christmas.”
Burnell, who has been married to his wife Cheryl for 46 years, said that when he got out of the Army in 1970, he was about to take another job that paid $1.70 per hour. Then he heard about a bus driver job and decided to take it because it paid $1.80 per hour.
His favorite part of being a driver was having contact with people, he said.
Now, as the lead supervisor, in charge of eight supervisors and 108 drivers, he still thinks interacting with people is the best part of his job. “I approach them like I would like them to approach me,” he said.
And Burnell’s style is effective, said Katish Williams, who has been driving for two years. “He’s all-around-the-board awesome,” she said while eating lunch at the CARTA office on Leeds Avenue on Friday. He’s good at his job so things run smoothly, and he’s a very nice guy, she said. “You can’t go wrong with him. Working with him is not stressful at all.”
Burnell, who has two children and three grandchildren, said some of the highlights of his career have been being named Employee of the Year in 1989 and having 25 consecutive years of perfect attendance in the middle of his 46 years on the job.
Frasier, 66, who has worked for the system for 41 years, said he’s honored by the recognition. But he really doesn’t think about the miles he’s driven. He just likes his job.
His wife died three years ago, he said. “The job is therapy for me. I love the people,” he said. “I love what I do.”
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.