COLUMBIA — When Loretta Brauner’s neighbor first told her in 1973 about a job opening at OATS, the California, Mo., woman had no idea what the organization did.
“I didn’t know there was a thing called OATS,” Brauner said of the group, which at the time was only two years old. “I thought it was hauling grain around for horses.”
Once her neighbor filled her in, telling her that OATS was a public transportation system that gives rides to people who have disabilities or other disadvantages, she decided to apply. After all, her husband, Walter, had been laid off, and she had six children at home to support. What followed became a career in which Brauner collected many memories, forged special relationships with scores of riders and established herself as one of OATS’ most professional and beloved drivers.
On Dec. 28, more than three decades after she took the job, Brauner retired.
Brauner spent her first 25 years driving in Moniteau County, picking people up from the outskirts of the county and taking them into the city of California for shopping, business and medical appointments.
“At that time, a lot of the older people didn’t drive,” she said. “This was a recreation thing for them, being with each other, and still they got their shopping, business and medical taken care of.”
After her first quarter century, Brauner began driving a larger mid-Missouri circuit that included Columbia, Boonville, Linn and parts of Osage County. She spent two years transporting children with disabilities to and from school and the next eight years transporting adults with disabilities to and from work. She spent her last year taking Medicaid patients to appointments in Jefferson City and Boonville.
Years ago, Brauner would take advantage of down time on slower days and take her clients on trips around Missouri. She remembers attending ball games in St. Louis, visiting dinner theaters in Kansas City and travelling to places such as Branson.
“We used to do a lot of touring with our little buses,” she said. “If we didn’t have a day that we had medical, shopping and business, we could use our bus for tours.”
Brauner takes pride in never wrecking a bus.
“As far as doing serious damage, I did back into a couple of things. I backed into a sign and I backed into a car, but otherwise I never hurt anybody on my bus, and I never got a ticket in the 34 years. I’ve been so fortunate,” she said.
Brauner remembers having only about three flat tires, as well. She got lucky. Someone was always close by to help.
“One day I was going to Columbia, and I had eight medical appointments and got a flat tire,” she said. “I opened my door, and I heard the air brakes on a tractor-trailer stop on the other side of I-70. These two guys had stopped, and they changed my tire. I know I was not down five minutes. I ran back into the bus, I don’t remember how much money I had, but I gave them each $5 or $10.”
OATS’ Mid-Missouri regional supervisor, Jack Heusted, worked with Brauner for almost 11 years. Most of all, he said, he will miss her “absolute dedication” to her riders.
“She went well beyond what the job description was,” Heusted said. “She would typically make follow-up phone calls to the riders if, for some reason, they had missed riding for a while. She helped schedule their medical appointments for them. It was more than just getting someone from point A to point B.”
Fellow driver Ed Friedewald agrees that Brauner’s kindness and compassion for her riders made her an exceptional OATS driver.
“People like Loretta obviously have set the standard for what future drivers will have to uphold as far as professionalism,” Friedewald said. “The way that you start a company and keep it going for 37 years is by having safe, professional drivers that are courteous and that people remember, that are not necessarily rushed by the standards that people follow today.”
It was a big decision to retire, Brauner said, but she knew it was time to quit. It was getting more and more difficult for her to see at night, and she felt a lot of responsibility serving people with disabilities.
“I figure they have enough problems than to be in an accident because of something I didn’t see.”
Brauner’s husband and children encouraged her to retire. She’s been able to travel more with her husband, and her kids “thought it was time that mom be home,” she said.
Brauner still has her OATS uniforms, and she wore one while reflecting on her years of service.
“I’ll tell you the funniest thing,” she said during an interview on Tuesday. “I have worn these shirts, I don’t know how long, but I never had a button come off.”
That changed on the day she retired. “I took my shirt off, and a button fell off.”