Starting in 2004, Terry Degner shepherded Eden Prairie's elementary schoolers safely to and from school, watching over them on his bus named Big Murphy. When the bus emptied in the morning, though, Degner's work wasn't over: Every day, he settled down in a nearby Caribou Coffee to work on his memoirs.
After 15 years of writing, Degner, 73, has self-published three memoirs, collections of lessons and memories from his early years in an orphanage in northern Minnesota, to growing up with his adopted family on a rural farm, to serving three tours with the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. Setting his experiences down in writing has always been the plan, Degner said.
"I made a promise to God when I was 12 years old that I would do eight things in my lifetime. Writing a book was one of those things," he explained.
Some of the other promises Degner has fulfilled — he kept his lips sealed about the ones he hasn't achieved yet — were to write a script, go to college and own a business. After returning from his military service, Degner hit the ground running. He attended the University of Minnesota and learned how to direct films, eventually creating his own video production company to create instructional and informational films for companies in the Twin Cities and achieving three of his lifelong goals in one fell swoop.
"I've always been a do-er," Degner said. "My father taught me how to work."
Degner closed up shop on his video production company in 2004 and sought out work to fill his days and fill his coffers a bit. His wife, Sally, suggested driving a bus for Eden Prairie Schools, and while the idea hadn't occurred to him before, Degner leapt at the idea.
"What I found is I absolutely love grade school," he recalled. While he drove students of all ages, it was the elementary schoolers who kept him coming back to the driver's seat. "We got along."
"Getting along" only scratches the surface. Degner named his bus Big Murphy and wrote up songs to get his riders excited for the day ahead of them, gathering his students together for a group photo at the end of every year, which he then laminated and displayed along the walls of his bus. When he retired after 10 years, Degner had filled the whole length of his bus with those photos. The feeling was mutual — many students drew Degner pictures thanking him for driving their bus, and families frequently sent thank-you notes or included him on mailing lists for holiday cards.
"Everyone once in a while I'll see one," Degner said of his students, many of whom still live in the area.
Another one of his promises was to be an educator, passing on a gift that a teacher gave him when he was just 8 years old. Because he spent his early years in an orphanage, Degner was far behind his peers in reading and writing when he moved in with his adoptive family in second grade. His teacher saw that he needed extra help and spent every lunch time with him for a year, helping him learn to read and write, which sparked his lifelong love of literature.
Now, at Eden Prairie's Forest Hills Elementary, he's passing on that gift of education. Degner volunteers at the school to teach entrepreneurship to third graders, helping them create business ideas like restaurants and bring them to life in small groups.
"That blessed teacher taught me how to read and write," Degner remembered. "I still enjoy being around these grade schoolers."