Driver stepping off to “go cowboy” after 28 years with Mountain Line

When Steve Minez gripped the steering wheel as the captain of his first Mountain Line bus back in 1989, things were done the old-fashioned way. Nearly three decades later, he’s calling it a career. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

When Steve Minez gripped the steering wheel as the captain of his first Mountain Line bus back in 1989, things were done the old-fashioned way. He used a hand crank to change the destination sign over the window, and he counted each passenger by hand.

The fare was relatively cheap, though keeping track of the transfer tickets could be something of a chore.

“The IT part of it is completely different,” Minez said on Thursday. “When I first started, we used to have a crank to change all our destinations, both above our head and over the door. Now we have a GPS system, so when the bus meets a certain location, it automatically changes on the bus.”

As Minez sat behind the wheel of a bright blue Mountain Line bus on Thursday, he did so facing retirement. After 28 years on the job – and staring down his 69th birthday – the time has come to call it good, ending an historic run with the city’s booming transit district.

Minez, known simply as “Manny” around the shop, traveled something of a winding road before arriving in Missoula back when Ronald Reagan was president. Living in Huntington Beach at the time, he worked in the grocery business and did well by all accounts.

There in sunny Southern California, he’d acquired his share of toys, including two boats, a rare Panther sports car and a slick BMW. He also skied and enjoyed fanciful outings in Austria and Canada, where a helicopter brought him in to steep, fresh powder.

But as the story goes, the toys don’t make the man and Minez found himself dissatisfied with life. It was then that a lady friend invited him to Missoula to ski and clear his head. While he didn’t believe there was skiing in Montana, the invitation piqued his interest.

“My favorite thing about working here over the years is being around people all the time, and I’m not stuck behind a desk,” Minez said. “I can jump on a bus and ride them around town. We’re required to ride with every operator twice a year, so every day is different for me, and I’ve enjoyed it.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“I was sort of going through a midlife crisis – I was 35 and it was one of those things,” said Minez. “Being in California, it’s very materialistic. The one with the most toys wins. But I came here and it was completely opposite. It was so different here.”

While he didn’t act on impulse, the loop in Minez’s story suggests a dramatic change in lifestyles. He left the Golden State for the less-than-sunny climate of Missoula, where he bought a piece of land and – of all things – the Arlee general store.

Business at the general store didn’t pan out, prompting Minez to take a job driving for the U.S Forest Service during the Yellowstone fires. When UPS called, he signed up, but the demanding schedule proved taxing.

As one might guess, that’s what led Minez to Mountain Line as a bus driver. But unlike his stint with UPS, he would have to learn to slow down. Mass transit is more about timing than speed.

“If you’re 30 seconds early, you have to pull over and wait there,” he said. “You can be late, but you can’t be early. It was a whole different ballgame.”

Clad in a well-tied tie, Minez reflected on his career – how he started as a bus operator before receiving a promotion to operations supervisor. As such, he became the first certified transit operator in Montana, graduating as he did from a national program that was still new at the time.

In his capacity as operations supervisor, Minez has trained more than 100 bus drivers, including most of those driving for Mountain Line. He also helped start the UDASH system at the University of Montana, which is now a staple of student transportation.

“My favorite thing about working here over the years is being around people all the time, and I’m not stuck behind a desk,” Minez said. “I can jump on a bus and ride them around town. We’re required to ride with every operator twice a year, so every day is different for me, and I’ve enjoyed it.”

When Minez first started, Mountain Line had five different employees named “Steve,” forcing them to each pick a nickname. That resulted in a “Lefty,” a “Wendy,” a “Gilligan” and “Manny.” The last Steve happened to be the general manager, who got to keep his name.

Minez will likely take “Manny” with him when he leaves for the last time on Friday, capping something of a journey that has taken him across the city more times than he can possibly count.

“We’ve had several people here that have left and died a few years later, so I want to retire while I can still enjoy things,” said Minez. “I’m going to go out and cowboy. Next week, I’m putting up a fence at my property. I’m going to finally be able to finish off what I came up here to do.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com