Islander receives Operator of the Year award

What started out as a short-term stint for one Islander in the summer of 1979 actually developed into a 30-year career behind the wheel of a bus and recently earned him Metro’s top honor, Operator of the Year.

Richard Boehmer, who stands 6-foot-5 and looks too tall to be comfortable driving a bus, received the award last Monday, just two days before his 64th birthday but more than 29 years after he started driving the bus.

“It really is a compliment,” Boehmer said of receiving the award in what he plans on being his final year of bus driving. “You always think that there are others more qualified.”

Eastside transit riders may know Boehmer from riding Route 222 through Factoria, Beaux Arts and Bellevue, which he began driving earlier this year. He said he requested this route because it is his favorite, and with his level of seniority, he gets the route and hours that he wants. Before he switched over to the 222, he drove the 230 through Crossroads in Bellevue for five years.

“I enjoy interacting with people,” Boehmer said of the perks of the job. “You never know who you are going to run into. I like the change in scenery and not being confined in a cubicle. Most people have to take a day off to go for a drive, but everyday I get to go for a ride.”

Bellevue Base Supervisor Jeff Wamsley said Boehmer’s motto “is to always provide the best service possible, be helpful and courteous to all of his customers, and to be a role model for other operators.” Wamsley also said that the Islander’s accomplishments, his sense of humor and friendliness are well known and appreciated by all at the base.

The Operator of the Year award was shared this year, as there was a rare tied vote for two drivers. Nate Chappelle of Seattle’s Atlantic Base near Safeco Field also won. In order to receive the award, a driver must be chosen as Operator of the Month from one of seven transit bases. At the end of the year, the Operator of the Year is selected by a vote of all fellow monthly winners. The vote this year was a tie.

“I’ve been saying that if we had known about it, we could have campaigned for it,” Boehmer said.

The big prize has its perks, too. In addition to the plaques, license plate covers, business cards and recognition on posters placed inside every Metro bus, Boehmer and Chappelle get to drive their own bus for the entire year, as well as their own parking spot. Metro employs more than 2,600 bus operators.

For Boehmer, the acknowledgment came just in time as he plans to retire next year. A Montana native, he longs to return to the state but has also found himself battling pancreatic cancer. He and his wife, Katie, live in the First Hill neighborhood where they raised their two children, Matt, 28, and Kyle, 25. Boehmer said one of his greatest hobbies is restoring muscle cars — his favorite car is a 1964 Pontiac GTO with the 421 tri-power engine — with his sons. Boehmer, a Mercer Island High School graduate, moved to the Island in 1957 when he was 13 and ended up raising his family here as well. Both his boys graduated from MIHS. In addition to spending time in the garage with his sons, he enjoys gardening with his wife.

“That’s something I’ve developed an appreciation for over the past 30 years, being with my wife,” Boehmer said.

Metro also gave Boehmer the “George Turner Award” in 2007. This award recognizes operators who display a positive attitude and keen awareness for seniors and the disabled. Boehmer received a commendation last year for frequently assisting a senior passenger in a wheelchair and his attendant with boarding the bus. The attendant commented on Boehmer’s sincere caring attention and his gentleness in providing service. The attendant said, “He made the whole process very easy.”

That is something, Boehmer’s superior said, he has been known for since he took the part-time job in 1979.

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