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.”