Toolin’ Around Town: Tim Colvin keeps Petaluma’s school buses on the road

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Although he’s never been asked to, Tim Colvin could probably troubleshoot, diagnose and repair Petaluma’s fleet of school buses, fire trucks and ambulances while blindfolded.

And even if he wasn’t asked, the longest-tenured employee of the Petaluma City Schools Transportation Department — with 41 years of experience and an overflowing toolbox of knowledge — is more than qualified to do so.

In addition to maintaining school buses, Colvin and his co-worker of 17 years, Guillermo Magana, are responsible for keeping all fire department apparatus — pumper trucks, aerial ladder trucks, support vehicles and ambulances — in tip-top condition, along with Petaluma’s sewer trucks. Police units, water department and street maintenance vehicles are serviced at the city corporation yard, while Petaluma Transit buses are kept running through a contract with MV Transportation.

Those who work with Colvin, or rely on his mechanical aptitude - firefighters, paramedics and school bus drivers - have unwavering confidence in his abilities to provide for their safety, which depends on reliable equipment.

Working for the school district is the only full-time job Colvin, a 1976 graduate of Petaluma High, has ever known. After taking high school auto shop for three years and ongoing education at SRJC, he was hired in 1977 as a substitute school bus mechanic and substitute bus driver, a requirement of all mechanics. At that time, Petaluma had 20 school buses covering 18 routes compared with today’s 24 buses with 14 routes. Reflecting Petaluma’s growth, the school district operated five buses in 1925, seven in 1946, 10 in 1960 and 22 in 1974.

“I’ve always been mechanically inclined,” said Petaluma-born Colvin. “It’s like I was born with a wrench in my hand. If I can take something apart, I can put it back together again. When I started out, we were still using points and condensers. Today everything is electronic.”

Another reason for keeping the valued machinery in premium condition is the cost of replacing older vehicles. With new school buses priced between $150,000 and $175,000, state-of-the-art ambulances more than $200,000, fire engines $600,000 and an aerial truck $1.5 million, it’s imperative to address wear-and-tear as soon as possible.

The youngest of three children born to Floyd and Connie Colvin, Tim and his siblings Mike and Michelle were raised on the former Doss egg ranch on Bodega Avenue. Among his various jobs, Floyd Colvin, with his father Thomas, ran Colvin Distributors and owned the local Kraft Food distributorship. Connie Colvin worked at Petaluma Grocery as a bookkeeper.

While working at the Camera Corner in the mid-1950s, Floyd partnered with his friend and fellow Petaluma Camera Club member Gordon Johnsen, in Cee-Jay Photography, a two-man operation that photographed weddings, social events and high school senior class portraits. Some of their timeless photos of downtown businesses from the 1950s still exist, but most of their historic photography was destroyed in the winter floods of 1982.

In 1989, Tim was hired by Petaluma Speedway promoter John Soares to maintain the racetrack’s water trucks and heavy-duty equipment. Over the past three decades, his Saturday job has evolved into driving a tow truck and various trackside officiating positions. When current speedway promoter Rick Faeth took charge, Tim became the speedway’s lead infield official and Faeth’s “right hand man.”

“It’s a fun hobby for me,” said Colvin, who was once the subject of a unique rescue by Petaluma’s first responders at the speedway, after he’d been launched through the air by a huge construction-size tire that had been struck by a racecar. He landed inside a barrier tire and became stuck. The firefighters carefully extricated him and although badly shaken up, Colvin was uninjured, needing only recuperation time.

On another occasion, in a symbolic gesture of gratitude, the Petaluma Fire Department’s engineers presented Colvin with a shirt embroidered with an emblem that reads, “Petaluma FD Mechanics — Without Us They Walk.” It’s not just the emergency personnel who appreciate his work. So do the 24 school bus drivers who transport Petaluma students to and from school every day.

“Our department is responsible for hauling the most valuable cargo there is,” emphasized Colvin, “our children.”

Those of us who take it for granted that our school buses and emergency vehicles are always ready to respond quickly and safely can be thankful for the behind-the-scenes work performed by the transportation department — and Tim Colvin.

(Harlan Osborne’s ‘Toolin’ Around Town’ runs every two weeks. You can contact him at harlan@sonic.net)

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