Originally created 02/22/99

Home front: Area man drives C-SPAN bus



When the time rolls around for John Utz to return to work on Monday mornings, he doesn't groan with the malaise so many people feel at the close of a weekend.

"A lot of people say they go to work on Monday morning," the Augusta resident said. "I don't. I go on an adventure."

Over the past year, Mr. Utz's adventures have taken him from California to Maine, from Florida to Michigan and all over the country. He's a bus driver for the C-SPAN School Bus, a mobile television studio the cable channel sends across the country to visit schools and teach students about government and broadcasting. The bus is used for filming vignettes to be shown on the network.

The C-SPAN School Bus is a program that C-SPAN founder and chief executive officer Brian Lamb started in 1993 after interviewing Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Hofstra University and author of The Magic Bus: An American Odyssey, a tale of his travels around the country with a group of students.

"He was so excited after this interview about The Magic Bus that he had me speak to his board of directors about it in Washington, D.C.," Mr. Brinklely wrote in an introduction to a later edition of the book. "He surprised everyone present by announcing that a bright yellow school bus would criss-cross America, talking to teachers and students and ordinary citizens."

C-SPAN launched its first school bus in 1993 and added a second bus in 1996.

Mr. Utz, a retired marketing director, decided shortly after his 1992 retirement that he missed all the travel that his career had required. He started to get restless being at home.

"I looked upon my retirement as an opportunity to do whatever I wanted," he said. "And I thought about driving a bus because it would afford me the opportunity to travel."

So he set about earning his commercial driver's license, exchanging part-time work for on-the-job training with a local motor coach company.

During the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Mr. Utz met the man who would be responsible for the series of events leading to his cross-country adventures.

While working as a chauffeur during the Olympics, Mr. Utz befriended one of his frequent passengers, Mike Howard. Mr. Howard was director of operations for Up With People, an international musical touring group of high school and college students from around the world.

In February 1997, Mr. Howard hired Mr. Utz as a relief driver for Up With People. His first assignment was in Minnesota that April, and he accompanied the young people from Minnesota to Washington state, and later in the year to Martha's Vineyard, a trip on which his wife Ann accompanied him.

He was in Erie, Pa., with Up With People when he learned about the C-SPAN School Bus program.

The C-SPAN bus was parked next to his Up With People bus at a hotel. He struck up a conversation with a C-SPAN staff member.

"I didn't know who I was talking to," Mr. Utz said. He learned he was talking to Bob Rielly, C-SPAN's bus production chief.

"We had a discussion, and he found out I was a relief driver for Up With People and asked if I'd consider doing the same thing for them."

The first week of January 1998, Mr. Utz received a phone call from C-SPAN.

"They said, `John, we'd like you to go to L.A.,"' he recalled. "And I said, `I'm on my way."'

Mr. Utz now travels an average of one week a month. He's still working with Up With People in addition to his C-SPAN gig.

In the past year, he said, he's covered 25,000 miles in the air, traveling to places where he's to meet the bus, and 13,000 miles on land -- including one 3,980-mile trip with Up With People from Los Angeles to Denver then straight to Maine.

While on the road, the four-person C-SPAN crew visits schools to give classroom presentations and tours of the bus. Most of the stops are at middle and high schools, but there are some visits to elementary schools and colleges.

The primary mission of C-SPAN, Mr. Utz explained, is to present the workings of the federal legislative branch in an unbiased format.

To that end, the network broadcasts gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate without interruption or commentary.

"A commentator is, in effect, telling you what you just heard, in his own terms," Mr. Utz said. "One of the things we focus on with the young people when we visit the schools is that we want to present it to you and let you make up your own mind."

Working with students of different ages, Mr. Utz said, he has noticed a pattern in the evolution of independent thinking.

"With middle school more often than not, you will be hearing what mom and dad think," he said. "And in the latter grades of middle school and early grades of high school they might say, `Well, my mom and dad think this, but this is the way I think.' You really begin to see the independence in college, and you can be reasonably confident there is no parental influence there. It's so fascinating to see that evolution."

C-SPAN School Bus staff members share video clips of congressional coverage as well as samples of C-SPAN's other public affairs programming. They work with teachers to incorporate C-SPAN programming into classroom lessons.

But the most fun part of the school visits, Mr. Utz said, is the bus tour.

"It's like that commercial for the phone company, the one where all the kids are asking the guy if he's the one who drives the truck," he said. "Well, I drive the bus."

"The Bus" is a fully functioning television studio, complete with three cameras, an eight-channel audio board, tungsten lights, three color television monitors, two laser disc players and two VCRs. Students enjoy seeing the equipment up close, Mr. Utz said.

In addition to school visits, the C-SPAN School Bus staff films vignettes throughout the country.

"We're seeing what I call Charles Kuralt's America," Mr. Utz said. The vignettes, which air during the network's morning program Washington Journal and on weekends, are mini-tours of places like the University of Florida's Brain Institute, the World War II submarine USS Silversides in Muskegon, Mich., and the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

The C-SPAN School Bus visited Augusta last year during a re-creation of the 19th-century American tour of French writer Alexis de Tocqueville.

Tocqueville's Democracy in America became a defining work describing the United States' political atmosphere and budding culture. The Augusta stop on the Tocqueville tour used the Imperial Theater on Broad Street as a backdrop for a discussion of theater in a democracy -- including such issues as government funding of the arts, racial segregation and the purpose of public entertainment.

Mr. Utz said he hopes to build a personal library of vignettes that he can share with others, to show America to people who may not be able to travel.

"There are senior citizen groups, nursing homes, veterans groups, all kinds that might like to have that kind of experience," he said. "And there are times between driving when I'd like to do something besides cutting the grass and watching it grow."

Emily Sollie can be reached at (706) 823-3340 or esollie@augustachronicle.com.