A driving force

Chuck Miller, a bus dispatcher with Columbia Transit, does more than his part to keep the city’s buses on the move.
Sunday, October 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:41 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

He’s the quiet one around the office, but everyone knows he’s there. In the midst of commotion, he helps sort everything out.

Chuck Miller, a Columbia Transit bus dispatcher, has worked for the city since 1982. He began as a building attendant, worked his way up to driver and then earned a spot as a dispatcher.

“Chuck is probably one of, if not the, hardest working person I’ve ever met,” says his supervisor, Mark Grindstaff.

It’s not hard to believe him. Miller begins his day at 4:30 a.m. He checks the calendar and the phones, sets up a driving roster for the day, starts and tests the buses and notifies the shop if there are problems. By the time the drivers arrive at 5:45, they’re ready to be assigned to their routes.

Miller, along with two other full-time dispatchers, manages 50 drivers, 14 routes and 30 buses. He often drives a route from 7:45 to 8:45 a.m. Somehow, he escapes being overwhelmed.

He hasn’t driven full-time for more than a decade, but driving is still one of Miller’s favorite parts of his job.

“I love driving. I don’t understand the (drivers’) complaints,” he says.

When Columbia Transit modified its bus routes over the summer, his driving became critical.

“I got to go through that and help the supervisors setting up the routes, timing them out, making sure they would work. It’s like I’ve helped leave a mark on the system.”

Miller’s life has been marked by travel.

His father was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and the Miller family of six moved wherever duty called, be it Texas, Kansas, New Jersey or England.

Miller moved to Columbia in 1969 when his dad retired. He graduated from Hickman High School the next spring and stayed to attend MU.

He graduated with a degree in elementary education, but the itch to travel began to get to him, and he left for Houston. After managing a motel for a year, he moved again. This time it was to Los Angeles, on a whim.

“I was down in Houston and came up for my sister’s graduation here at MU,” Miller says. “I ran into a friend of mine (who) got an offer to go run for the Santa Monica track club. I said, ‘I’ll go.’”

He chuckles while trying to explain his rationale.

“I didn’t like Houston too much,” he said. “So I just gave up and said, ‘What the heck, I’ll find something to do out in Los Angeles.’”

After almost three years managing a restaurant in California, Miller wanted a change from the big city atmosphere. He returned to Columbia, he says, because it was “a good place to be.”

Everyone around him seems thrilled that he is where he is now.

Dale Lynn, a dispatcher at the Wabash station downtown, says Miller stands out because of his understanding of the city.

“He has good working knowledge of how the system operates — where the buses are at a certain time,” Lynn says.

Miller’s expertise extends further.

Three years ago, Grindstaff says, the transit system was among the worst city departments in terms of staying on budget.

Miller has been a large part in turning that around, Grindstaff says. He added routes without additional funding and has managed to work under budget.

The anecdotes continue. When two of the five supervisors in his office were called to military duty, others relied on Miller once again.

“Chuck had to take on a lot of extra work, and did so, and did so well,” Grindstaff says.

Miller’s dedication has helped him earn the Top Team award twice. The award, given by the city annually to the top city employees, carries a lot of prestige.

Miller seems embarrassed by the attention. While his colleagues loudly tease him about being photographed for a “Men of Transit” calendar, he obliges with a quiet smile. He’s proud of what he does, but he’ll only brag about the system.

He points to the recent 2003 Transit Agency of the Year award as one example.

“Our ridership expanded in a year when most people’s went down,” he says.

Miller’s dedication to keeping bus routes accurate and serving Columbia’s residents helped Columbia Transit beat out other organizations throughout Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska for the award.

“Transportation is something that’s emphasized nationally, and Columbia’s picked up on that,” Miller says.

Miller says he takes the bus whenever he can — although not to work, he jokes — because it’s so convenient. And he’s prepared to keep it that way, despite his prediction that increasing gas prices will add more riders and make it necessary to once again make changes to the transportation system.

“We’ll have to react to that as well, expanding routes and timetables,” Miller says.

“He’s very dedicated to improving Columbia Transit,” Grindstaff says. “He wants to see CT do well.”

So far, it seems he is succeeding. More events throughout the fall are designed to increase awareness and usage of public transportation, including a free fare day on Thursday.

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