Going round and round
RUGBY The award plaques and framed photographs on the walls number well over 100, all testimony to the remarkable success of doing business in a hometown and an icon of schools everywhere the yellow school bus.
Hartley’s School Buses of Rugby was started by Hartley Hageness in late 1969. Countless vehicles pass by the multiple rows of new and used yellow school buses each day on U.S. Highway 2 on the east edge of Rugby. Many drivers and passengers likely wonder how so many buses could possibly be associated with a North Dakota community whose most notable claim to fame is for being the “geographical center of North America.” Hartley’s School Buses might be an obvious second.
Hageness grew up on a small farm near Rugby and has been closely associated with the city ever since. He’s recovering from knee replacement surgery today, but still can be found in his office in the massive building in which buses are custom fitted to the purchaser’s liking, body shop work completed and trained mechanics work from front to back on all aspects of buses, long and short.
“Rugby’s a great town. This is my hometown. We’ve tried to be quite involved in things in the city over the years,” said Hageness.
He’s a pilot, too, and, over the years has used his planes to take at least 1,500 Rugby high school students on special flights over the region on prom nights. Judging by the broad smile when talking about those adventures, Hageness thoroughly enjoyed providing aerial thrills to happy students.
“In all those flights I only had two get sick,” said Hageness with a sly grin. “Sometimes I tried too. I gave them a flight to make sure they would remember.”
Hageness’ most youthful days are behind him now. The likeable businessman has several momentos in his office that would be the envy of many pilots, including a clock with both a yellow school bus and an airplane painted on the face. Hageness didn’t say when he had last flown an airplane, only that he was considering retiring as a pilot.
The Rugby native got his start in the school bus business with a simple bid to the Rugby School Board to take over some bus routes at the school. He was awarded four of them. The rest is history.
“Then we pursued the dealership for a small line of buses and later became a Bluebird dealer,” recalled Hageness. “It’s been a great connection, always here in Rugby.”
Bluebird is the name that has been emblazoned on thousands of buses that have passed through Hartley’s School Buses for more than 40 years. Hageness’ acquired the Bluebird dealership for North Dakota and Montana in 1973 and still runs a number of school bus routes in both states today.
“We have seven school bus routes in Montana and another seven or eight in North Dakota,” said Hageness. “We furnish the buses and the drivers. We also have charter buses that operate on the road. We’re quite busy with that.”
Hageness laughs when he tells the story of arriving with a busload of passengers at Minot’s Norsk Hostfest. In large script on the side of a completely black bus with tinted windows was the inscription “Black Diamond.” The bus was immediately directed to a spot reserved for entertainers to unload their equipment.
“Then we had to tell them we weren’t the band,” chuckled Hageness.
Hageness explained that he had purchased the bus from a private owner in Las Vegas who has chosen to place his nickname for the bus, Black Diamond, on the side of it. Hageness liked it so much he kept it, even meticulously replacing the name when the bus was re-painted. The bus remains one of Hartley’s most requested charters today.
Through the years though, it has been the trademark yellow school bus that has been synonymous with Hartley’s. The motors and electronics and interiors have undergone immense changes through the years, but the yellow paint remains unchanged. It is a required color for school buses other than those used to transport students involved in sports or other activities.
“If they run a route they have to be yellow,” explained Hageness. “For an activity they can be colored or white but then can’t be used on a bus route. Some schools buy activity buses in yellow so they can be used both ways.”
When Hageness began his business there were “seven or eight” busmakers competing for business throughout the country. Today, says Hageness, there are just three Thomas, International and his cherished Bluebird.”
Changes and improvements have continued to be made by bus manufacturers, sometimes to comply with new safety standards and sometimes to stay a step ahead of the competition. The latest trends include a change in preferred transmissions and the introduction of propane power.
“It used to be all straight sticks,” said Hageness. “Now we haven’t sold a standard transmission in two years. Everybody buys automatic. We sell the new propane powered buses now. That’s catching on. They work real good, are economical and quiet. We have one customer in Montana that bought 49 propane powered buses. There’s less maintenance.”
Hartley’s does business in both Kalispell and Helena, Mont. At those locations they do complete repair work in addition to supplying buses and drivers for school routes, but it is the Rugby facility that remains the heart and soul of Hartley’s School Buses.
“My son and my daughter work here,” said Hageness. “There’s a dozen other people plus drivers. We have two people just in parts that handle parts for school buses and schools.”
According to Hageness, improved safety standards have led to some of the most visible changes in buses. He says there’s “no comparison” to what the buses were when he started in the business. Buses are bigger too.
“The most common size in North Dakota is 47 or 53 passenger. The bigger schools maybe up to 84 passengers, but there’s not a lot of that in North Dakota,” said Hageness. “We sell a lot of 84’s in Montana. That’s a flat-nosed bus that’s 40 feet long.”
How much longer Hageness will continue to go to his office at Hartley’s is a question he gets asked occasionally. His response to that question earlier this week was simply, “I’ll just keep coming to work.”
Clearly, he enjoys his work and what he has accomplished since those early days of bus driving in the Rugby area. There’s another thing too, the business contains several cars that would be the envy of collectors anywhere.
“It’s hard to pass up a good deal,” laughed Hageness when asked about the car collection. “My son and I both have collected cars for a number of years. He’s got 13 Mustangs and some other cars too.”
Among Hageness’ collection is a 1918 Ford Model-T Touring car that he still rides in local parades. He also has a 1934 Rolls Royce Town Touring sedan.
“That’s Rolls Royce,” said Hageness while gesturing toward the stately automobile. “If you had one of those back then, you were somebody.”
So, too, is Hartley Hageness, the man who built a thriving business in his own hometown.