If not for the efforts 50 years ago of Frank W. Cyr, the ubiquitious yellow school bus might be a bus of a different color.
Green, white, bright red, just about every color showed up on the vehicles that carried kids to class back in 1939. Some districts painted theirs yellow, as safety experts had begun to urge. But others had the idea that red, white and blue buses would make children more patriotic.Chaos reigned - and it didn't end with color.
In Kansas, children traveled to school in wooden wheat wagons. In many rural states, it wasn't unusual for youngsters to ride in trucks with floorboards covered with cow flop.
To survey this school transportation mess, Cyr, then a rural education expert at Columbia Teachers College in New York, toured 10 states with the help of a Rockefeller Foundation grant.
Returning, he gathered educators, school bus manufacturers and paint experts for a landmark meeting that produced a 42-page pamphlet containing the nation's first school bus safety standards - from axles to brakes to color.
On April 26, half a century after the gathering, Teachers College plans a luncheon in honor of Cyr, now 88 and the acknowledged "father of the yellow school bus."
"School bus yellow" is now as natural to America's morning landscape as the sunrise. More than 22 million public school children ride in 361,998 buses each day, says Larry McEntire, president of the National Association of State Directors for Pupil Transportation Services.
The formula for the orange-yellow paint used on virtually all of them is on file at the National Bureau of Standards.
"It is hard to imagine today any area of education policy where you could gather people in one room and cause such a national change to occur," said P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College.
The standards agreed upon at that meeting had impact far beyond color.
"What the next 50 years revealed is that this simple instrument, the school bus, can be a powerful instrument in education policy," said Timpane.
If not for national standards that put safe buses in each district, the school consolidation movement would have stalled. There were 80,000 school districts in the 1930s. Today, there are just 16,000.
Later, buses became both the symbol and engine of racial integration.
Within a few years of the conference, about 35 states adopted bus standards. The last state, Minnesota, switched from "Minnesota Golden Orange" to yellow in 1974.
But safety was by no means the sole reason for standardizing school bus color, Cyr told a visitor to his white clapboard Victorian home in the tranquility of this northern Catskills hamlet.
Cyr, who had grown up in a sod house in the Republican River Valley of Nebraska and had taught in country schools, was by the 1930s a noted authority on rural education. It was his idea then to form school cooperatives to help rural districts provide student services they couldn't afford on their own.
The Rockefeller Foundation invited him to study the shortcomings of rural school transportation.
He drove through 10 states.
"The local districts all told me they were in trouble. They all said state officials had standards for manufacturing vehicles and kept changing them.
"The state departments were even more unhappy. They lacked expertise. They didn't know how to establish standards.
"I visited bus companies and they were having more trouble than anyone," Cyr said. They had to cope with the differing rules, requirements and tastes from 48 states.
Even before the conference, some school districts were using yellow buses because the color was known to be highly visible in rain and fog, Cyr said.
"But a number of states wired us to ask if they should go red-white-and-blue. I said, please don't do anything until we've had our meeting.
Cyr chuckled as he thought back. "Red, white and blue was camouflage, if you think about it. It was to make kids patriotic. It was well-meaning, but they made the buses less visible. And I don't think it really had much effect on patriotism."
Armed with $5,000 in Rockefeller Foundation money, a small fortune at the time, Cyr invited state education officials from across the country, engineers from Chevrolet, International Harvester, Dodge and Ford, and paint experts from DuPont and Pittsburgh Paint to Teachers College to set bus safety standards.
When talk turned to color, Cyr displayed 50 shades ranging from lemon yellow to deep orange-red.
There was no bitter debate, Cyr said. The group appointed a committee of education officials, and they settled on the color seen on buses ever since.
Fifty years later, Cyr likes to tell the story of how his son, Bill, once asked: "If you're the 'father of the yellow school bus.' what does that make me?"
"I told him that anytime a school bus goes by, he can say, "There goes one of my brothers."