Armed with a box of Charleston Chews, a map of the university, a full bottle of water and a whole lot of patience, Phil Fleetwood, who had been driving continuously around campus for seven hours, said his day had begun a lot earlier, around 6 p.m.
Every night for a safety shuttle driver begins at the Richmond International Airport, the home of the six new Groome shuttles, where Fleetwood and the six other drivers have to do an inspection of their vehicles to make sure they are clean and cleared to run before heading back to campus and beginning their night at the Tyler Haynes Commons at 7 p.m.
On an average Friday or Saturday night, around 400 university students ride the safety shuttle to various spots on campus from 7 p.m. until 3:30 a.m., said Fleetwood, who started driving the shuttle two weeks ago.
Although the shuttle was not quite so crowded on Saturday, Jan. 29, 32 female students and 15 male students rode between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m., with numbers slowing down a little before then.
"I will probably only see three more people the rest of the night," he said just before 2 a.m., after letting the last student off the shuttle at Grey Court. "Everyone has usually found a bed of some sort by this time."
Fleetwood, who recently retired from the Army, said everything was a "learning experience" and that he decided to take the job for one specific reason.
"I'm here to pick up students in need," he said. "Everywhere you look there are groups of students. That's why I don't stop driving."
A few minutes later, Fleetwood pulled up alongside a woman on crutches to make sure she was all right and to ask if she needed a ride and, even after she insisted that she was all right and was almost at her car, he watched for a minute to make sure she got where she needed to go.
"I just want to make sure they are OK and see what I can do for them," he said. "Some of them are airheads who don't wear clothes and go out in 15-degree weather," he said with a chuckle.
And that they do: moments later, five women in matching tank tops and spandex ran onto the shuttle, with one of them excitedly exclaiming, "Guys, it's like 30 degrees; it's not even that bad."
Another woman walked onto the shuttle wearing flip flops and leg warmers.
"There must be something going on at the beer gardens," Fleetwood said, pointing to the lodges.
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One male student stayed on long after his friends had left, for almost two loops of campus, with one loop being 5.2 miles, and, in this short time, got three different women's numbers at three different times.
"The majority of the students are really good kids," Fleetwood said, calling a few of them "friend" when they walked onto and off the shuttle.
Even when he was asked if he could drop someone off at a specific location, which shuttle drivers no longer do now that the service has changed, Fleetwood always responded politely, saying, "That's where we're going, my friend," with a smile on his face.
Someone who really knows the inner workings of the shuttle is Wayne Wright, who drove one of the university's safety shuttles for eight years.
"I enjoyed meeting all the girls and being a part of their lives from freshman to senior year. I really miss it," he said.
Wright said if a student was walking, he would stop and ask if they were OK, regardless of where they were on campus.
"Anybody walking should get a ride," he said. "I made a point to keep the students safe."
Wright said that, most of all, he missed the closeness of the students.
"They were a second family to me," he said. "They would talk to me and tell me stories. They told me stuff they wouldn't tell others and I always listened. I wanted to help everyone the best I could."
Wright said that he was sure Groome was doing a great job and that it was better for the students this way because they know when they are going to get picked up, unlike before, but he felt it was more like a business than a family now.
"I wish it would go back to the old system," he said. "Tell everyone over there I miss them. I miss y'all, I really do."
"Wayne will be missed and has an open door," said Groome Transportation representative, Kimberly Richardson. "He is absolutely wonderful."
Contact staff writer Charlotte Brackett at email@example.com
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