Christian Gerrard started riding Rob Thompson’s bus on a rainy fall afternoon two years ago.
The University of Minnesota junior was “blown away” when he first stepped onto the bus — he heard Miles Davis blaring over the chatter of other passengers.
Like many students, Gerrard grew to expect a smile and ‘hello’ from the man who became his favorite bus driver
– the man known around campus as the “Jazz Man.”
After 12 years, Thompson no longer drives his Campus Connector bus.
During a trip on his route this summer, he gave a passenger his phone number to “talk jazz.” According to Thompson, the passenger notified First Transit, the University’s provider for buses and drivers, in late July.
By September, the company re-routed Thompson to Brooklyn Center.
First Transit, which contracts with the University to operate connectors and circulators, employs more than 40 drivers at the University.
Bus drivers receive guidelines when they are hired, outlining policies like driver-passenger interaction.
“Giving out contact information isn’t something we encourage,” said the company’s spokesperson Maureen Richmond.
She called Thompson’s relocation a “transfer.”
First Transit officials acknowledged Thompson’s presence in the University community, but they said he wanted to “try something different.”
Thompson said his employer and the University are working with him to return to his route on campus as early as November.
The University’s Fleet Services, which handles the titles and insurance for University vehicles, declined to comment.
Thompson believes the jazz might be part of the reason he was relocated.
His management tried to prevent him from playing music on his connector when the University changed contracts in 2007. With the help of more than 1,000 student signatures on a petition, the jazz that defined Thompson kept on playing.
He carried about 30 CDs with him each morning, often varying tunes by time of day and season, blowing out five boom boxes over the years.
Bus riders started wondering where Thompson was by the time September rolled around.
“I was confused when I didn’t see him at first. I loved getting on that bus,” University senior Jennifer Jacobsen said.
Many students said the rides from West Bank to the St. Paul campus and back again aren’t the same without Thompson.
“The times on [Thompson’s] bus can’t be remade. They were always fun, and they were always a way to escape for a few minutes,” senior Kyra Underbakke said. “He went above and beyond his job as a bus driver.”
Thompson’s following isn’t limited to students — University faculty also rode his Campus Connector over the years.
He created a unique atmosphere for his passengers, said Karen Moon, an adviser in the College of Continuing Education.
“I think people who offer something different are extremely [valuable] … He did his job with heart,” she said.
Connecting through jazz
As a teenager, the Detroit native dreamed of becoming a DJ, hoping to connect with people through the music he played.
Thompson said playing jazz on the bus is like living his childhood dreams.
Students said he exposed them to dozens of jazz musicians during their short trips between campuses.
Many students, like Clinton Bergene, aren’t even jazz fans. But the computer science junior said that didn’t matter.
“It’s not about the music … It’s about the atmosphere and how he made you feel on the [bus]. He’s a kind of person who doesn’t come around often,” he said.
To many students, Thompson was a campus celebrity.
“You hear about him before you even step foot on the campus,” Gerrard said.
Thompson hopes to return to his University route just as he was — with the jazz that he loves.
Many students said they used to wait for Thompson’s connector to swing by, recognizing Thompson’s honk and wave.
“He’s a model for what everyone should be like … I’ve never seen him with a frown on his face,” Bergene said.
Thompson isn’t allowed to bring his boom box on his new route, but said he appreciates his job.
“It’s more of a routine in [Brooklyn Center] … I want to get this show back on the road.”