By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer
Dan VanKirk begins each workday before 6 a.m., then drives dozens of kids to school. Each afternoon, he drives the kids home, usually finishing before 4:30 p.m.
Between those times, he can be found helping out at the Muskogee Teen Center, 322 Callahan St.
As a school bus driver and Teen Center helper, VanKirk, 66, observes that it “seems like everything I do I do with kids.”
His wife, Eileen VanKirk, is the director of the Teen Center and Muskogee’s Youth Volunteer Corps.
“I’m always promoting this teen center,” Dan VanKirk said. “A lot of these kids came here as bullies, but they’re not bullies anymore. I’ve seen a lot of kids change.”
However, involvement with kids isn’t the only thing that keeps VanKirk going. He also enjoys gardening and doing things on the computer.
“I’ve got to have something to do,” he said. “If you don’t have something to do every day, you’re going down the wrong road.”
VanKirk has been keeping himself busy ever since he graduated from Muskogee’s Central High School in 1965.
“Right out of high school, I went to work at a lumber yard and when that was over — when my day was done — I would go do construction,” he said. “I had several houses going. I’d work to dark every day.”
He stayed in the construction business for 35 to 40 years.
“I worked for Ricketts. We did a lot of telephone work and school work,” he said.
He also worked for a restaurant chain and built Taco Bueno restaurants in Enid, Sand Springs and Sapulpa.
VanKirk uses his construction experience at the Teen Center. He has helped the youths build cardboard boats for the annual River Rumba Regatta and a picnic table for the YVC.
Meet Dan VanKirk
CAREER: Bus driver, Muskogee Public Schools; former construction worker.
EDUCATION: Central High School, 1965; some college and technical courses.
FAMILY: Wife, Eileen; seven children, 12 grandchildren.
RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION: Presbyterian.
change a life
Dan VanKirk survived three accidents, which he said left his back messed up.
The first was a car wreck in the early 1970s.
“It was 24th and Hancock; the girl ran a stop sign,” he said, referring to the driver of the other car. “Six inches would have made a difference. I just hit her at the front wheel, tore the whole front off.”
He said the other car went out into a field and rolled over three or four times. He said he was in the hospital for two or three days, “but I should have stayed longer.”
The second collision was in 1986. Again, a young woman ran a stop sign, he said.
“She hit my back bumper hard enough to roll me over,” he said. “I was in the hospital, messed up pretty bad. I was there a couple of weeks.”
In the third accident, he fell off a scaffold about 15 years ago, breaking his back.
“The boards slipped, and I fell 18 to 20 feet,” he said. “I had a roof project, a big old steep mansard roof. I had a scaffold, and the boards just slipped off.”
VanKirk said he again spent a couple of weeks in the hospital. This time, however, he was not alone.
“Two of my grandkids were in the hospital the same time I was — being born,” he said. “They were cousins, born a day apart.”
He continues to have problems with his back, he said.
“Some days are worse than others,” he said. “Some days I don’t have to do anything.”
VanKirk started working for Muskogee Public Schools about seven or eight years ago. His wife also worked at the district.
VanKirk has been driving a school bus and watching kids grow ever since.
His current route takes kids to Cherokee Elementary, Alice Robertson Junior High and Ben Franklin Science Academy. He brings about a dozen AR students to the Muskogee Teen Center each afternoon, he said.
“I’m supposed to be at work at 6 a.m., but I’ll usually be there at 5:45,” he said. “Six-thirty is my first stop. I might be through at 8:10 or 8:15. In the afternoon, I’m through by 4:10.”
He said he gets along with most of the kids.
“I get to talking to them a bit,” he said. “I might ask them about the elements and say, ‘Look at that sun, it’s hydrogen converting to helium.’”
He gets to know some of the kids.
“One girl, I had never seen her smile, but I saw her smile for the first time this week,” he said.
And every child has a story, he said.
“Some of them are ornery and you wonder why. It could be because of their brother, sister or family. It’s all they know,” he said.
VanKirk seeks to be a welcoming presence.
“We’re the first ones these kids see in the morning. I could tell if they’re going to have a good day or not,” he said. “I don’t dislike any of them. Some of them are looking for attention, but they’re not getting it.”
Gardening is a
VanKirk grew up gardening. And he still pokes around the dirt in several spots around town.
The garden he had as a child was about two acres, he said.
“We had everything, even a little orchard,” he recalled. “We grew grapes, cabbage.”
He now has a garden at his home and a Muskogee Community Garden plot near Spaulding Park. He said he likes the way community gardeners watch out for each others’ plots.
“You get to know the people there and they watch your plot, see if it gets dry and they give it some water,” he said. “Some people don’t want you do water their gardens, so they put up signs.”
VanKirk said he gives away a lot of his produce.
“I’ve even planted brown beans and when I got through, I had enough beans to last through the year. I have beans and cornbread,” he said.
He also has planted sweet potatoes, cantaloupes, strawberries and raspberries. He also grows lettuce, which he said his son feeds to his pet turtle, Reggie.
“I also grow gourds,” he said. “They make bird houses out of them, the neighborhood kids do. The gourds are good for nothing but hobbies. You get one person doing it, then the little kids come along and say, ‘I want to do it.’”
And, yes, he grows tomatoes.
“Everybody’s got to have tomatoes,” he said. “I give away a lot of it, and I can a lot of it.”
He said the best thing about gardening is “just seeing what’s going to happen.”
HOW DID YOU BECOME AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE?
“My dad came here and went to work for a bus company. My dad was a mechanic. He went to work for a container corporation. He was the one who went in Monday mornings and fired up the boilers.”
WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT MUSKOGEE?
“There’s still history in this town; everything’s not gone. There are some friendly people. Within driving distance, there are a lot of things to do around here.”
WHAT WOULD MAKE MUSKOGEE A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE?
“For everyone to realize we need jobs. We don’t need more low-income housing, we need jobs.”
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING IN MUSKOGEE?
Bus driver for Muskogee Public Schools.
WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?
“What spare time I’ve got, my wife thinks I’m on the computer too much. The gardening, the computer and reinforcing my opinion about things.”
WHAT OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE DO YOU ADMIRE?
“Anybody who wants to promote kids and enlighten them.”
WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE THING TO HAPPEN TO YOU IN MUSKOGEE?
“I met my wife at St. Paul United Methodist Church. I was working on the St. Paul Building, and she was working at the church and she kept coming out to look at me. I brought her some pink cupcakes and a Mountain Dew. She liked that.”
HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP MUSKOGEE IN 25 WORDS OR LESS?
“Muskogee has potential. It has an employee market for starter jobs. We got to start somewhere.”