ABOUT THE WINNER:
Years in education: Has worked for Hamilton County schools for 25 years as a school bus driver.
QUOTE ABOUT THE FINALIST
"He understands that the bus ride truly is an extension of the school day."
-Nolan Elementary School principal Dr. Shane Harwood.
FUN FACT: He says he drove some of the grandparents of students he drives now.
John Champagne may never have thought about his last name, but the Signal Mountain school bus driver lives up to it.
He's bright and bubbly and quick with a smile.
"I love dealing with people, especially the kids," he said. "They're exciting. They keep you young. I like seeing them from kindergarten all the way up."
Champagne has been a bus driver in the Chattanooga area for more than 25 years, with much of that time spent picking up youngsters and taking them to and from school.
"Mr. John, as he is affectionately known, truly goes above and beyond the requirements of being a Hamilton County bus driver," said Nolan Elementary School's Shane Harwood, who was recently honored as elementary school principal of the year.
"He understands that the bus ride truly is an extension of the school day, and works diligently to complement the overall mission and vision that we all hold in regard to effectively educating our children while instilling responsibility and respect for all," Harwood said.
Driving a school bus, though, isn't for everyone.
"You have to be a people person. If not, you don't last very long in this business. The principal will tell you that," said Champagne, who drives bus 12. "You have to love the job or you can't do it, but it's a good, clean and interesting job and you get to meet a lot of people. There are some children now whose grandparents I once took back and forth to school."
He knows many of the children well and makes a point to help them start and end their school days on a positive note.
"I say 'Good morning' and some speak back. If I'm a little lively it might start their day off right, and I always tell them when I drop them off to have a good day. I guess I can make their day or ruin their day and I try to keep that in mind," he said.
Last year, Champagne went above and beyond the call of duty, Harwood said.
"Our school added an additional special-needs class room. Mr. John purchased a larger special-needs bus and gave his own time to receive the training and certification required to operate the wheelchair lift," Harwood said.
"In addition to purchasing the bus and being trained, he then insisted on driving our special-needs students free of charge on field trips they take each year. He did all of this on his own which is an outstanding reflection of his character and commitment."
For Champagne it was about caring and being able to do something positive.
"They want to go, we go," he said. "We have been enjoying it since I got it. That [bus] keeps them from feeling they can't do something.
"Doing something for somebody else - that's what it's all about."
Contact staff writer Ward Gossett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-886-4765.