Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A special bus ride down memory lane

City Transit staff, daughter help ex-driver celebrate 100th birthday

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It's been decades since retired Winnipeg Transit operator Fred Petruga made the newspaper for going out of his way to help a regular rider.

I mean really going out of his way.

Fred drove his bus off its route to pick up a regular rider who wasn't at her bus stop at the usual time. The woman was so impressed and grateful she contacted the newspaper to thank him publicly.

Today is Fred's second time making the newspaper. But this time it comes courtesy of another one of his regular riders, a special one who's still riding right beside him. Although, it was one of his daughters who contacted the Free Press with the latest news.

-- -- --

"It all began with a phone call to 311," Donna Gylywoychuk's email began.

Donna's call to the one-stop city phone line last month was prompted by an upcoming special family occasion.

Her dad would be 100 on Aug. 20.

And she wanted to know if she could still get her dad and his wheelchair on the bus using his No. 15 Transit operator's badge. Donna wanted to take her dad on a bus ride down memory lane to celebrate his big birthday.

It was George Fatouros, Transit's chief inspector, who returned her call. By that time, Fatouros had consulted manager of operations, Greg Ewankiw, and come up with a plan involving more than a mere courtesy ride for Fred.

But when Donna agreed to go along for the ride, she had no idea where it would end.

Where it began was the Maples Nursing Home just after the evening rush hour on his birthday, when one of Transit's fleet of wheelchair-accommodating buses picked up Fred and his family.

All 20 of them.

It was a "special" bus, decorated with balloons on the inside and "Happy 100 Fred!" on the outside.

"We wheeled Dad onto the bus, locked him in; the rest of us piled in and off we went."

First stop was the North Main car house where Fred and his Cathedral bus would have made his last stop in September of 1978. Then it was on to Transit's Fort Rouge garage complex with Transit supervisor Wayne Casper acting as the tour guide.

Fatouros was also aboard, even though he was supposed to be on vacation. It was also Fatouros who emailed Transit employees and invited them to be part of the celebration. It was an awkward time of day, but when the birthday bus arrived at the Fort Rouge garage and stopped in front of a picnic table, there were close to two dozen employees from various Transit departments waiting for Fred.

But just then, as the party was really about to get going, the wheels almost fell off. Actually, a pin on one of Fred's wheelchair wheels snagged and sheared as he was being pushed off the bus, although even that lent an extra nostalgia to the occasion. Transit maintenance supervisor John Ens and mechanic Don Adam stepped in and fixed the wheel for Fred, just like on one of the good old bad days when his bus broke down. It was also a couple of Transit employees who helped Fred and his wheelchair off the bus and over to see the day's biggest birthday surprise: a restored version of a 1937 twin coach bus supplied courtesy of the Manitoba Transit Heritage Association.

Fred's wheelchair was too wide to fit through the doors of the old bus, but that wasn't going to stop him. Fatouros and the others watched in awe when, in a Lourdes-like moment, Fred got out of his wheelchair and, with a little help from his new friends, excitedly climbed aboard one last time.

Even his daughter was amazed.

"We travelled around the complex a few times, and through the maintenance building. Pictures were taken -- then we were escorted up to a second-floor meeting room where we were all able to view framed, historic pictures hanging on the walls."

It was the members of the Manitoba Transit Heritage Association, and president Alan Brunsel, who supplied the birthday cake.

Candles were lit and blown out.

And just over two hours after he was picked up, Fred was driven home.

"Grinning ear to ear," Donna said.

"It was an amazing evening," she said in summary. "Totally unexpected. Thoroughly enjoyed."

"Companies," she concluded, "simply don't do things like this these days."

Maybe not companies.

But people still do.

People still went out of their way for each other, much like Fred did all those decades ago for that regular rider.

As I was saying, there was another regular passenger on the special "Happy 100 Fred" bus, one that's still riding with him and explains it all.

Her name is Karma.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2013 A2

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