Paquin Tower bus driver helps residents get where they need to be

Monday, October 6, 2008 | 11:26 p.m. CDT
Mike Bishop, left, gets help from Columbia Parks and Recreation bus driver Jim Umstattd onto the handicap-friendly bus to Aldi on Thursday outside of Paquin Tower.

Thursday afternoon, Jim Umstattd was all set to drive seven residents of Paquin Tower home from Aldi, a supermarket on Business Loop 70.

But Mike Bishop was still sitting in his motorized wheelchair, packing up his groceries. 

Without saying a word, Umstattd walked up to Bishop, who handed him an insulated bag. Umstattd began arranging the groceries — hoagies, salsa, pickles — inside the bag.

Then he placed it between Bishop's legs on the wheelchair, and the two went out to the van, a 14-seater Umstattd had parked just outside the supermarket entrance.

It was one of countless ways Umstattd demonstrates his willingness to help.

"It just seems to me to be part of the job," said Umstattd, once a resident of Paquin Tower himself.

"I mean, if someone has, like, a dozen bags of groceries, do you just stand back and watch them struggle ... or do you pick up some of them and help them get on? It just seems like the natural thing to do, don't you think?"

Umstattd has been driving Paquin Tower's residents to sporting events, restaurants and supermarkets in a wheelchair-friendly van as a part-time job for the past six years.

The residents love him for his help, which frequently extends beyond transportation to many little kindnesses. But he doesn't let their appreciation go to his head; he doesn't want to be characterized as a saint.

Yet, the residents are beginning to realize that he may not be around forever. In August, the Columbia City Council nearly cut funding for Department of Parks and Recreation programs at Paquin Tower, which include the trips with Umstattd. After residents protested, the council reinstated funding for another year.

Since then, Parks and Recreation staffers who work at Paquin Tower have been looking for alternative methods to fund the program.

But Umstattd, 61, is planning to look for another job, one that pays more and is not in jeopardy.

And as early as November, the not-for-profit center, Services for Independent Living, will take responsibility for trips to the supermarket.

In the meantime, he keeps extending his hand. The son of a janitor and a nurse's aide, he grew up in Hannibal, attending MU and eventually moving into Paquin Tower to care for a man who was disabled.

He met his wife, Rosie, at about the same time, and in 1980, the two moved into their own home. After doing clerical work in Ellis Library for 15 years, Umstattd took a job with Services for Independent Living, helping the disabled live as independently as possible.

When his wife returned to Paquin Tower to work for Parks and Recreation, he followed and began driving the van.

Residents say he is much more than a bus driver.

"He knows what to do with the participants, 'cause he's been around here so long," said resident Charles Dudley Jr. as he leaned up against the van in the Aldi parking lot.

If the city were to end the program, the Umstattds would have to leave. "The city would be getting rid of two very good volunteers," Dudley said.

A few weeks ago, Umstattd spent hours hooking up a television set for Paquin Tower resident David Dollens. He "wouldn't charge, wouldn't take nothing," Dollens said.

If Umstattd's service were to stop, residents say, a city bus would drop them off across the street from Aldi, leaving them to cross Business Loop 70 on their own.

And when buses go to the Wal-Mart on Conley Road, they drop off passengers far from the entrance, leaving them to navigate traffic, snow and other obstacles. Umstattd drops them right at the door, they say.

He also takes a personal interest in the welfare of his passengers.

On Thursday, as Umstattd drove out of the Aldi parking lot, his cell phone rang. It was his wife.

After Umstattd hung up, he called out, "Mike?"

Bishop shifted his attention from his view out the window and turned to Umstattd.

"Yeah," he said.

"You left your door locked, and your housekeeper couldn't get in the door," Umstattd told him.

"That's one of those things (Umstattd does) that nobody else does,"  Dollens said.

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Ray Shapiro October 7, 2008 | 1:07 a.m.

Transportation workers throughout Columbia could learn a thing or two from the exemplary service oriented Mr. Umstattd. He is the most patient, even-tempered care provider, I have ever known. Losing him, because of Parks & Rec budget constraints, would leave an irreplaceable void for the disabled residents at Paquin Tower.
He and his wife, Rosie make a unique professional team in an otherwise lackluster enviornment.
What a shame it is for the city of Columbia to even consider turning its back on such quality care.
No other transportation service for the disabled comes close to what Mr. Jim Umstattd naturally delivers to those who need more than "just a ride!"

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 7, 2008 | 4:52 a.m.

Yes Mr. Jim Umstattd does so much while on the clock and also while he is off the clock such as the following examples of off the clock work: helping David Dollens with his TV or helping Dr David Foley who has a history of Epilepsy to get around town or to his doctor or even just extra shopping trips. Mr. Jim Umstattd is more than just your average City Employee and as ray shapiro stated above alot of transportational personnel in Columbia could learn alot from this one man.
My question is it the City's policy to get rid of experienced personnel who are valuable to the community as a whole?

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