I first noticed James Putnam when I transferred to the University of Southern Indiana last year as a sophomore. It seemed that every time he would pass me in his 30-passenger Metropolitan Shuttle Transit System shuttle bus, he would always take the time to look up from his wheel and give me a great big wave. Interestingly enough, I found that not only would Putnam wave to me, but he would wave to each and every person that he passed on the street. It didn’t matter if it was a student, a USI maintenance man, a car, or another shuttle bus. If Putnam saw you, he waved to you.
As the leaves began to fall from the trees, and the temperature outside turned colder, I stopped walking to class and started taking the bus from my apartment to campus. Stepping onto the shuttle for the first time all year, I was offered a knuckle bump. Seeing the massive fist extended in the air, I quickly made the connection with the kind man who had waved to me every day since my first day on campus. Looking up I saw an enormous man who resembled more of a Division I lineman than a bus driver (though he says he never played sports), his broad shoulders shrunk the driver’s seat in which he was seated. After I had accepted a knuckle bump, his closed hand nearly doubling mine in size, he offered a genuine smile and a “good morning!” I wasn’t the only one James offered the knuckle bump to; he extended his hand to the next 15 or so kids who climbed on the bus behind me.
Seeing these simple acts of kindness go on day after day, I finally decided to strike up a conversation with the man who seemed to care more about other people than anyone else I had ever met. We talked for five minutes as he drove me to my destination, and I discovered that Putnam was 50 years old and had been born and raised here in Evansville. He told me that he works a 7 ½-hour shift beginning every day at 7 a.m., although he says “he is more than happy” to stay later whenever he is needed, and how happy he was that after 17 years he had the opportunity to drive at USI and out on campus, where he has been driving for the last year and a half. His loop circles campus every 15 to 20 minutes depending on the number of passengers climbing aboard.
Putnam emphasizes the knuckle bumps “are always optional. Nothing is mandatory.” He first started offering them to passengers last September when a group of students at the end of his route would extend their hands and eventually other students began asking for them as well.
“It caught on,” says Putnam with a laugh. About 98 percent of riders exchange knuckle bumps with him, he says, which makes his job that
much more fun to him.
Before getting off the bus, he said something that really touched me, “I try to brighten up everyone’s day because all of you brighten up mine. If I can brighten up your day with a wave and knuckle bump, that’s all I can hope for.”
Cole Schafer is a junior at the University of Southern Indiana. This piece originally appeared on his blog, thegoodandthegrey.com.
For more information about the Metropolitan Shuttle Transit System, call 812-435-6166 or visit evansvillemets.com.