Bond on the Bus

Bond on the Bus

A passenger boarding a Greyhound bus headed to Detroit in 1946 might have observed a sensibly dressed young woman in black sitting behind the driver and embroidering. She would very likely have been “chatting it up” with a fellow passenger, all the while pausing to take covert notes, sometimes in a pad up her sleeve.

What was she up to?

Margean Gladysz once lived a spy’s life

Story by Theresa Coty-O’Neil

Margean Worst Gladysz, who had recently graduated from Western Michigan University at the tender age of 18, was working her first well-paying job. She was a “spy on the bus,” a company rat, or what was officially known as a checker, paid by Greyhound, Trailways and other companies to ride buses across the country to report on the drivers’ behavior and performance. It was a position of which drivers were aware but which was very hush-hush.

In the mid-1940s, it was also a job that few women occupied, and one for which Gladysz was technically underage. But this did not stop Gladysz, who in a bold letter to her future boss suggested that it would be “timesaving if I were trained and ready to step into the position the moment that a vacancy occurred.”

How could he resist? And as luck would have it, a vacancy occurred. So began Gladysz’s foray into life as a spy on the bus, work that eventually had her travel 138,000 miles of the post-World War II United States. In her observant way, Gladysz chronicled her adventures in letters home, 384 of them, which her mother preserved.

Those letters ultimately became a memoir, The Spy on The Bus: Memoir of a Company Rat, published in 2008 by Arbutus Press. The book was lauded by national journalist and former Trailways bus ticket agent Jim Lehrer, who wrote, “There will never be another book like this … She was there to spot and report back on drunk, stealing, reckless and nutty bus drivers who should be fired… A Spy on the Bus is a treat and a half. I promise.”

But how does a young woman who grew up on a Galesburg dairy farm, attended a one-room schoolhouse (Comstock Fractional #1) and graduated early from Western Michigan University with a degree in social studies become a spy on a bus?

“I was always interested in geography and farming,” she says. “I had never been anyplace ever, and here was my chance.”

Back then, in the post-war era, financial aid for college was allocated to World War II veterans. Gladysz had her sights set on a graduate degree in geography from the University of Chicago, but to get the degree, she would have to earn the money. Eager to see the world, Gladysz discovered the checker job and applied. She then embarked on a living course in geography, documenting in detail the cities, natural terrain, people and prices that she encountered along the way.

“You’re too young to be afraid if you’re raised right,” she says. “I was sensible. My folks had utter faith. They never told me they were worried. I always had their support and always their eagerness to find out what’s going on.”

It helped that Gladysz was familiar with riding buses, having traveled by bus from Galesburg to Kalamazoo for the two-plus years she attended college. “Buses were very interesting back then. They became very communal, just like a family.”

Before Global Positioning Systems, video cameras and electronic tickets, bus drivers had a lot of independence. Their children, wives and the occasional girlfriend often rode free, and sometimes fares were shorted or driving was poor. Gladysz wrote detailed reports, which sometimes took her several hours. Her bosses knew a good worker when they saw one and gave her accolades and further destinations. After a severe bout of homesickness in her initial month, she gave herself a firm talking-to and never looked back.

“You get sand in your shoes. I would go home and after three days, I couldn’t wait to get the clothes put together and get out on the road. Every day was an adventure.”

She documented those three years of adventures in letters home, all of which began, “Dear Ones,”  and she related her daily stories to eager ears.

“When I was on the road, I would see things happen and there was always a story there and I would just wonder. Once at a station, I saw this family kissing and hugging goodbye to a woman. The woman got on the bus, and then she got off the bus and decided to stay, and I wondered, what was the story? Why did she stay?”

Eventually, Gladysz, too, got off the bus. “All of my friends were married, beginning to have kids, and here I was still living out of a suitcase. So I called and I resigned.”

When Gladysz returned to Kalamazoo, she found a job at the Michigan Veterans Vocational School and met her husband, Ed, a retired veteran. They soon married and had two children, John, a biochemist at Texas A&M, and Margean, an engineer. Gladysz typed up the letters she’d written while riding the bus, organized them in a notebook, packed them in a trunk in an attic and forgot about them.

While raising her children, she earned a master’s  degree in Library Science from WMU and began working first for the Kalamazoo Public Schools and then for the Kalamazoo Public Library.

One day her grandmother handed her a pristine  copy of a Greyhound wartime brochure. She got online to investigate and discovered a brand new Greyhound Museum had just opened in Hibbins, Minn.
“I started thinking, ‘I have other stuff related to buses. I wonder what I have.’ ”

So she hauled down the trunk with her letters. “I couldn’t believe that I had done all this. By then I was working at the KPL History Room, and I knew I was looking at original source material.”

She showed the letters to a friend, who told her, “You have a book, Margean.”…..

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