GILBERT, AZ — A group of bus drivers from Gilbert Public Schools gathered Saturday for a special send-off for a fellow driver who died of COVID-19 last week.
Eleven school buses, one by one, detoured down Elliot Road in Gilbert with no students on board, no first-period bell to beat, no field trip across the state. Instead, they all headed to the final resting place of a person who was always on the go and brought everyone else along for the ride.
It was the route they never thought they'd have to take, but one they drove with honor as they remembered one of their own -- 70-year-old Keith Purdy, who had worked for the district for seven years.
"His heart was bigger than his body," explains fellow bus driver and close friend Bill Hansen.
But even bigger than Keith's heart is the legacy he leaves behind for his fellow bus drivers.
"He loved this job so much and the kids...Keith was an individual like no other. I mean, what a personality. That picture I sent you of him... that radiant smile of his spelled everything out about Keith. That guy didn't have a negative bone in his body. He always had a smile on his face."
Even today, a week after Keith lost his battle with COVID-19, Hansen still has so much joy in his eyes when he looks back at even the simplest memories they built in the bus parking lot after spending six years parked right next to each other.
"We had to check our buses thoroughly before we leave to make sure they were safe for the kids. Every morning, it would seem like he would come and knock on my door and I'd open up the door and he would have this serious look on his face. He goes, 'Did you do a full check?' And I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'you got all these nuts and bolts under the front of your bus,' so I get out of the bus to look at it, and it was nothing. It was just him. And then he goes, 'Gotcha!'"
And so it was only fitting that Hansen would help organize Saturday's tribute bus ride, taking on the important job of driving Bus No. 261, Keith's bus.
"He's been next to me every day for the last six years, but driving the bus and looking in the rear-view mirror, I'm going, 'My god. I'm driving your bus, Keith. What an honor.'"
Even though he's no longer behind the wheel of Bus No. 261, Bill says he's still behind a lot of powerful memories.
"Keith is going to be there with us forever."
And suddenly, this lonely road didn't feel quite so lonely.
ABC15 spoke with Keith's wife, Joan, on Tuesday, who says he was a loving husband, and father of seven children. He also had 22 grandchildren.