‘What little boy doesn’t want to be a train engineer?’

Jun 25th, 2018 | By | Category: Spotlight

John Helm never thought he’d have lasted this long, in the same job, the same city. But given the chance to fulfill his childhood dream, he said retirement surely could wait.

Helm reached his amazing milestone March 7, which was 50 years to the day since he first became a bus driver for the Seattle Transit System, a predecessor to Metro and King County Metro.

Over modest pizza and cake, surrounded by longtime friends, colleagues and family, John took it all in, a little shy at the attention. People praised him for his big heart, his calm demeanor, his professionalism. He was honored with two plaques for his longevity.

Helm grew up a Kansas farm boy from a big family, where he learned to give and take, cooperate and do the chores you are supposed to do – and with a big heart he says he inherited from his mom and dad. At 21 years old, he had just finished serving in Vietnam and needed a job, but Boeing was cutting back. Seattle Transit System asked him if he could start the next week.

The years came and went as the region boomed and transit service expanded. He was an Eastside bus driver, and selected by his peers to be Metro Operator of the Year in 1996. When he reached the 40-year mark, he thought about retiring.

But then came Link light rail. “What little boy doesn’t want to become a train engineer? It just was a dream come true,” he said.

With his safety record and seniority, he was one of 55 bus drivers in 2009 to train to become the first class of operators on Sound Transit’s Link light rail. He told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time, “I miss the people and I miss driving, but traffic has gotten horrendous and people aren’t very nice out there when it comes to sharing the road. This came at a perfect time for me and my career. I just like the technology. It’s kinda neat for a 63-year-old guy.”

He was selected to carry dignitaries on the inaugural ride of Link in 2009.

Fast forward to today. He’s 72 and reflecting on how he got where he is. It takes determination, enjoying your job and the people you work with, he said.

“I had a good support group, most of them right back here,” he said, pointing to his wife Pam, his sons and son-in-law, his grandson, sisters-in-law, and his best friend.

There’s another ingredient in 50 years. Got to be love, right? Got to be love, said Terry White, Metro’s operations manager.



Jeff Switzer, who works for King County Department of Transportation,

John Helm (left) was the center of attention as King County Metro honored his 50 years as a bus and light rail driver. Operations manager Terry White is at right.

wrote this article for the King County Metro blog.