TEWKSBURY — We’ve all heard a lot about essential workers lately, and with good reason. The people who work the fields, manage the food distribution centers, drive the trucks and stock the grocery store shelves while also keeping those stores clean enough so that we all can feel safe in the age of COVID-19.
While the doctors, nurses and technical staffs at the various hospitals are on the front lines of our survival pipeline these days, it’s the “working class heroes” who too often get overlooked. If we’ve learned anything over the past couple of months, it’s just how important, underpaid and underappreciated these people are. Have you ever thanked a bus driver? That bus driver is one of those people essential to a lot of lives every single day of the year. We need to get to work and at some point during our lifetimes we’ve all needed to get to school. Our lives began to take shape on that bus ride to and from school. There were probably many days when we didn’t exactly feel like getting to school and made that bus driver’s life miserable. It’s often a thankless job dealing with young people with years of maturity and education still light years ahead of them.
Roy Flagg has been driving a bus in Tewksbury for 50 years. He drives part time now for Tewksbury Transit Incorporated, and at 72 he has no intention of retiring. The Tewksbury native makes his home in Hudson, Massachusetts these days, but he still considers himself a ‘Tewksbury Townie’ and with a deep connection to sports in town, it’s no surprise that he hopes to be moving back to Tewksbury as soon as possible.
Flagg has driven the Tewksbury High School football and hockey teams to road games for as long as he can remember, and with schools and athletic programs cancelled for the year Flagg has plenty of time to reflect on the many special moments he’s shared with so many athletes in Tewksbury. With students and teachers adapting to the world of remote learning, the role of the bus driver has taken an undeserved back seat in many communities.
“All I’ve been doing is sitting around the house,” offered Flagg on a recent Sunday afternoon. “Some days I go down to the bus yard where the guys are working on summer maintenance. I worked as a mechanic, so they might ask me some questions.”
Not exactly a full day, but Roy Flagg has earned the time off. He can rest all that he wants after giving back to so many young people in Tewksbury. Roy has a great, if understated, story to tell, and in his own quiet, unassuming way, he goes about telling it over the sounds of a Tewksbury High School hockey game at the Breakaway Ice Center this winter.
VARIETY OF MEMORIES
Roy Flagg is the oldest of three brothers, all of whom grew up in Tewksbury. Brother Alan is 70 and middle sibling Steve was 63 when he tragically passed away in November of 2018 just before Thanksgiving. Roy graduated from Tewksbury High School in 1966 and went to work at United One Fastener in Cambridge with his dad. He worked at Commonwealth Chevrolet in Cambridge before enlisting in the United States Army with the Corps of Engineers in Vietnam beginning in 1969. It was there that Flagg’s life journey took a tragic turn and became challenging, to say the least.
“I had some bad experiences in Vietnam,” he says. “I got operated on to have a cyst on my back removed while I was there and it got infected. The night that I went to the hospital the VC attacked. I was a sergeant in charge of 39 men. All of my men were killed. If I wasn’t in the hospital we wouldn’t be having this interview. I got discharged from Fort Devens in 1969. It was life altering for sure. I’ve had some post traumatic stuff and a lot of residual effects.”
Flagg came back to Tewksbury and was well enough to resume a life that would include his children and grandchildren Kasey Doucette, Jack Doucette, Kristi Sarcione, Thomas Sarcione and Olivia Sarcione.
“In 1970 I worked for Carl Sittler. He had a garage right across from the airport in Tewksbury. One day I was working on a car and caught my elbow in a fan. The next day I got a call from Paul Belle wanting to know if I wanted to start driving a bus. That was June of 1970. I didn’t start driving the teams until the following year in 1971. Back in 1971 we had five different bus companies in Tewksbury. I worked for Paul Belle until 1972, and when it was Paul’s turn to drive the sports teams that’s when I started driving the football and the hockey teams to away games. I began working for Blanchard Charter Services owned by Al French until it became Tewksbury Transit in 1991. I’ve worked for them until this day.
“The reason that I started driving the football team was that my brother Steve was on the football team in 1974.” He was one of Coach Aylward’s first captains. I saw all of the games that Steve played.”
Retired Hall of Fame Tewksbury High School football Bob Aylward is quick to praise just what Roy Flagg the bus driver meant to the football program at the high school.
“As far as I’m concerned he still means a lot to the program,” offered Aylward. “He was the first one to take us to our summer camp in New Hampshire in 1974. Then he would pop in to meetings like he was one of the staff. When we would warm up at Doucette (Field) before an away game Roy would time it so we would arrive just before kickoff so sometimes we wouldn’t be intimidated by the other team’s size.
“Since day one he was our guy. He always drove the lead bus wherever we went. He was great on the little details. I never had to worry about how we would get to the games. It was because of Roy. He knew every route imaginable. It took a lot of weight off my shoulders.”
Roy came back from Vietnam dealing with PTSD, but somehow managed to normalize his life with a family and a job that he was devoted to and loved. Now he was seeing his brother Steve taking on more responsibility and maturing under Aylward’s guidance both on and off the field. For years Roy talked about Steve’s time as a Redmen football captain. Then Steve suddenly passed away before the Thanksgiving Game in 2018.
“It hurt me a lot,” Roy admits.
Once again Flagg turned to his job and the games that he loved watching for comfort.
“I just love dealing with the kids and the people who go to the games. I like to talk to everybody. It doesn’t matter who they are or how much trouble they’ve seen. I really consider myself a Tewksbury Townie. I moved here when I was three-years-old. Right now I don’t live here, but I hope to move back soon.”
Flagg has his favorite teams and moments, and one TMHS Hall of Fame coach even considered Roy a lucky charm of sorts.
“When Leo DiRocco was the softball coach he wouldn’t let anybody drive the team to away games but me,” he says. “One of my favorite teams was the 1974 hockey team with players like Ahern, Wilkie and Deshler that made it to the Boston Garden and lost to Austin Prep in the semifinals.”
Roy even ventured into very uncharted territory when he was a last minute fill-in as a junior varsity hockey coach.
“Bob McCabe was the varsity coach, and I was taking the team to Methuen,” Flagg remembers. “The junior varsity team gets to the locker room, and the next thing I know is that the game is ready to start and there is no coach. They put me on the bench coaching. We won the game, 5-4,” said Flagg, laughing at the memory of his perfect coaching record.
When a bus driver takes a hockey team on a road trip in the dead of winter sometimes weather becomes a factor.
“The hockey team was going to Salem State for a tournament game and the trip took four-and-one-half hours in eight inches of snow. We won a game that should have been cancelled. That game would have been cancelled for sure today.”
Flagg has a memory that has nothing to do with football or hockey that he cherishes most of all. Roy loves to chat, and he cares about people — especially young people. Sometimes even a bus driver can make a connection that impacts a life. Roy shared one of those special moments for what he says was the very first time.
A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS IMPACTS A LIFE
“I was doing a route, and we had these kids that were living at the Caswell Motel at the time,” Flagg remembers. “They had no house, but they went to Tewksbury schools. A kid and his sister used to take the bus from the motel to their school every day, and the other kids used to make fun of them. You know how kids can be. A little rough. The Dewing School had this thing that they called ‘bus student of the month.' Bobby (not his real name) wasn’t the greatest kid on that bus, but I felt really bad for him. So what I did was one month I nominated him as the 'bus student of the month’ at the Dewing Elementary School.”
Bobby was about nine-years-old and in the fourth grade. Flagg smiles that small but genuine smile when he recalls when the school made the boy’s day with an award that helped him to connect with his peers.
“The next day after Bobby won that award he got on my bus and had a big smile on his face. He was so happy. He had the trophy with him. The kids on the bus all saw this. After that day everybody started liking Bobby. His mother and his father came out to the bus one day and they both shook my hand. His teacher told me that from that point on Bobby was getting all A’s and B’s on his schoolwork.”
Flagg modestly says that Bobby wasn’t the only student that he has made a positive connection with over the years.
“I’ve done that a few things like that over the years. That’s not the only one,” he matter-of-factly says. “I’ve probably done it about ten times. I’ve never told anyone these stories. I just do what is in my heart. Sometimes on the bus I would talk to the kids. They would be a little rowdy, so I would just start talking.”
Ultimately Bobby turned into a real success story — perhaps thanks largely to Flagg’s thoughtfulness.
“I talked to his mother and father later that year and they told me that they had just bought a new house in Tewksbury. The last that I heard Bobby was in college and doing very well.”
STAYING IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
Flagg doesn’t think too much about the future. He feels it’s important to stay focused on one day at a time. He sees what other bus drivers are doing to support their school communities and takes great pride in his chosen profession. School bus drivers in Marlborough, Haverhill, North Reading and over a dozen other communities recently delivered 70,000 meals to students and their families. The buses are decorated and horns are blaring upon arrival with not only meals, but school supplies as students adapt to the new world of remote learning. Flagg sees himself as a vital cog in that wheel going forward. In fact, it seems like he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is the first time that I’ve ever said this to anyone, but this job that I have, I love it so much,” offered Flagg. “Everyone says that I should retire. I’ve retired from about half of it. But I can’t retire from the whole thing. I love it. I’m going to do this job for as long as I can do it. As long as I can pass the physical.”
It’s a safe bet that the Tewksbury High School football, hockey and many of the other athletic teams will be very happy to hear that Roy Flagg has no thoughts of retiring any time soon. There will eventually be games to be played and a travel schedule to keep. And Roy Flagg will be ready to hit the road again.