Sisters Behind the Wheel

From The Eagle

By Jim Butler

Published: Sunday, October 9, 2005

When Katrina evacuees needed to be transported from a San Antonio air force base to area shelters, Texas Gov. Rick Perry put in a call to his alma mater. Within hours, a convoy of 10 Texas A&M University buses was on its way.

A single call by a transit system supervisor secured three of the drivers: the Conn sisters, Sherry, 25; Lisa, 24; and Julie, 21.

"The supervisor said, "Be at your bus in 15 minutes, and we were," Sherry Conn said.

The buses left at midnight and returned 48 hours later.

Lisa, left, Sherry and Julie carry their passengers around town with gusto and authority.

Eagle Photo/Butch Ireland

Lisa, left, Sherry and Julie carry their passengers around town with gusto and authority.

"At first we were told to wear gloves and a mask," Sherry Conn said. "But the masks scared the refugees. They kept asking, 'Why are you wearing a mask?' So we took those off."

"One guy kept everyone on the bus laughing," Julie Conn said. "A woman asked him why he was so happy, and he said, 'I just spent five days on a roof. ...'"

The drivers catnapped on the floor of the bus while waiting for the next planeload of evacuees to arrive at Kelly Air Force Base.

"I'll never forget that trip," Julie Conn said. "The best part was when a little boy hugged my leg and said, 'Thank you.'"

Days later as Hurricane Rita approached Texas, the drivers were on standby.

"We were at the top of the list for Rita," Sherry Conn said.

"They love us because they can get three drivers with just one call," Lisa Conn said.

And not just three drivers, but three drivers who LOVE their job.

"This is the most awesome student job you could have," said Julie Conn, who is in the nursing program at Blinn College.

"You get to be inside and outside at the same time," said Lisa Conn, an animal science major at A&M whose nickname is "The Bush Babe" because her favorite route goes to the George Bush Presidential Museum and Library. "She's also known as 'The Evil Conn,'" said Sherry Conn, declining to explain further.

"You meet so many people, especially the other drivers," said Sherry Conn, who is majoring in agricultural science at A&M. "The drivers are like one big family."

The Conns grew up in Hemphill, "smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, way behind the East Texas Pine Curtain," Sherry Conn said. "We grew up running wild in the woods and fields, raising all sorts of critters and having the greatest times."

The Conns were home-schooled and learned everything from carpentry and car repair to cooking and sewing.

"One of our uncles actually taught us to plow with a mule and to shoe horses," Sherry Conn said. "My dad [Jesse] learned to cook so he could teach us. It was pretty much understood around those parts that if the Conn girls couldn't do something, then no one could. Even though we were home-schooled, we had lots of friends. Socialization was never a problem. According to mom, we had way too much."

Lisa Conn's dream was to attend A&M, so the others tagged along.

"It didn't seem right for Lisa to come alone, so Julie and I came, too. It was more cost-effective for Julie to go to Blinn because A&M didn't have a nursing program," Sherry Conn said. "We had a roommate our first semester here, poor thing, that didn't work out. She was an awesome person, but we are a shock to anyone's system."

The Conns' cousin Charlie drove a bus for A&M, so Lisa decided to give it a try. A year later, Julie joined up, followed by Sherry.

"To be perfectly honest, there is no greater thrill than driving a 20-ton, 40-foot-long Nova bus," Sherry Conn said. "We can parallel-park a Nova in the dark, in the rain, and on the first try."

When the bus route gets busy, Sherry Conn becomes more like a drill sergeant. "I once got 85 people in a 35-seater. I just stood on the seat and yelled, 'We're not leaving anybody behind. Drop your backpacks, stand up and move back!' Being Aggies, they do it."

As much as they enjoy driving a bus, the Conns have their occupational pet peeves.

"I can't believe people who walk in front of the bus," Sherry Conn said. "What can they not see? A 20-ton bus can't stop on a dime. I'm not allowed to curse when I'm on the clock, so I say, 'Is there a man in the crowd who would like to tell that person what we think?'"

Julie Conn's bane is sorority girls. "They come running out of the sorority house yelling to hold the bus, then they raise one finger and walk while 40 people are waiting."

Sherry Conn remembers when one such debutante got her comeuppance. "On the old buses, there was a fan just inside the door. Sorority girls would get on the bus, and of course, flip their hair. Well, one girl's hair got caught in the fan. She didn't get hurt, though."

The trio picks the rudest passengers unanimously: "Females with cell phones," Lisa Conn said.

"One girl came up to the front, talking on her phone, and said, 'You missed my stop,'" Julie Conn said.

The women agreed that driving charters are the best part of the job.

"One charter went to Minute Maid Park in Houston," Julie Conn said. "We got breakfast, lunch, $20 in coupons to spend at the park, and got to see the Astros."

Julie Conn was also the driver when the city of College Station sponsored a trip to Sam Houston Race Park in Houston to benefit United Way. "I didn't do any betting, but the fajitas were great," she said of the food served in the private box.

Not all charters go off without hitches, though.

"We had a charter to take the Aggie Band to the Houston airport," Lisa Conn said. "The time was changed from 4:30 am to 4 am, but nobody told the drivers. And Dr. Gates [A&M President Robert] was on board. We made the flight, though."

After leaving A&M, the Conns will not apply their driving skills to other big rigs.

"Our mother [Kathy] said there were two things we were not allowed to be: welders or truck drivers," Lisa Conn said.

After May 2006, the transit system will need to find three more drivers. That's when the Conns graduate. (And not only that, their mother will receive a masters degree in mathematics from Stephen F. Austin in May, too.)

The Conns hope the future includes families for all three sisters, and they have it all figured out.

"When we have kids," Sherry Conn said, "we'll send them to Julie for the first two years. I get them for the next three years. Then Lisa gets them until they are grown."

Could that be two sisters' way of getting even with "The evil Conn?"