In today’s modern world, it’s all too easy to go through a day without engaging with anyone. We put on our headphones, stare at screens, text instead of call and try our hardest to avoid that uncomfortable thing known as face-to-face communication. Steve Schaffer is out to change that.
Schaffer has been a UTA bus operator for more than 30 years. He knows his passengers by name and greets them with a personal welcome as they enter his vehicle. For Schaffer, it’s about showing “his people” that someone cares deeply about them.
“By addressing them by their first name, [you’re] acknowledging them for who they are and what they are as an individual,” he said. “It shows them that they’re more than just a mere passenger. They’re not mere passengers to me.”
Far from being just passengers, Schaffer describes his riders as his “loving family”. He makes a point to learn their names, ask them about their days and comfort them when they’re distraught. At one point, Schaffer said, he had memorized the names of nearly 90 percent of his riders.
The kindness Schaffer shows his passengers is often returned to him. He recently received a letter from one of his riders with an intellectual disability. The rider had limited writing skills but had painstakingly spelled out “Love, David” on a card.
“As much as I love my people, I get that love back tenfold,” he said.
If you’ve ridden with Steve on route 9, 17 or 21, you may notice that his bus is often decorated for the approaching holiday. This week, he was adorning his bus with fresh red carnations to cheer riders during the post-Christmas doldrums. As he puts it, “It doesn’t cost too much more to go first class.”
Schaffer is originally from Dyersville, the little town in Iowa where “Field of Dreams” was filmed, and his unselfconscious Midwestern friendliness is apparent the moment you step on his bus. Passenger Meredith Vehar recently described Steve as a real-life “Mr. McFeely”, the cheerful character on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
"He welcomed every person. Students, U staff, everyone," Vehar wrote in a recent Facebook post. "He looked people in the eye. He said, 'How was your day?' 'Thanks for being here.' He gave polite pats on the shoulder. He rat-a-tatted the backs of seats as he strolled. Sometimes it was embarrassing. Who is used to a stranger expressing joy so blatantly? So unabashedly being kind? Past the embarrassment was bliss. We smiled. We stared with curiosity. We wanted him to ignore us—but then maybe instead have a seat and ask how it was today on our little slice of the earth. This guy, he is Mr. McFeely incarnate. The physical similarity is real—especially in a uniform. But more than that, it’s his emotion. The raw, true, vulnerable type. As my stop came up, I planned to tell him that his joy was contagious. I wanted him to know. Yet as I approached the front to tap my pass and say it, he looked at me and said, 'I appreciate you.'"
When Schaffer began work as a UTA bus operator in 1987, he said he only expected to stay behind the wheel for a short time. He’d completed a graduate degree and assumed he’d move on to a more corporate job until he realized he’d found his calling – making people happy, one “good morning” at a time.
“I have no control about the outside forces of the world,” Schaffer said. “All I’m trying to do is make my corner of the world a little bit better every day.”