News & Events

Belated birthday gift puts 94-year-old Marine veteran behind the wheel

July 9, 2017

Mountain Ridge Assisted Living resident Bella Willis gets comfortable behind the steering wheel of the community’s bus Thursday, July 6, 2017, near Bonneville High School in Ogden. When Willis, who turned 94 last month was asked what she wanted for her birthday she asked to drive the bus. “I didn’t think they would go for it,” Willis laughed.

Story, photos and video by Sarah Welliver • Standard-Examiner staff

Belle Willis wasn’t worried about safety. At 94-years-old, the Marine veteran was pretty sure she knew where the brake pedal was.

Sitting behind the driving wheel of the 12-seater transportation bus from Mountain Ridge Assisted Living in South Ogden, Willis adjusted her oxygen cannula and waved out at the crowd gathered at a parking lot in front of Bonneville High School.

Crouched down beside her was Mountain Ridge’s executive director Darren Jacobson.

“Okay, let’s start with your foot on the brake there, and then go ahead and put it in drive,” he said.

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With a seatbelt secured over her bright red blouse, Willis adjusted her driving cap and reached to grip the gear shift lever, pulling it toward her.

As the bus jerked and started forward, Willis hit the horn twice and let her foot off the brake. Jacobsen laughed as a smile spread across his resident’s face and she let out a loud “yahoo,” starting her first lap around the parking lot.

The drive was a belated birthday wish almost a month in the making.

A bright presence at the assisted living community, staff asked Willis what she wanted for her birthday in June.

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Cheryl Schmid, left, senior vibrant life director at Mountain Ridge Assisted Living hugs resident Belle Willis Thursday, July 6, 2017, near Bonneville High School in Ogden. Schmid coordinated the effort to grant Willis’ wish to drive Mountain Ridge’s community bus, contacting the school for permission to use their parking lot for the drive. She also contacted Ogden City Police Department, who pretended to pull her over and then presented Willis with a driving certificate.

“I said I wanted to drive the bus, never dreaming ever that there would be a chance,” Willis explained.

Cheryl Schmid, senior vibrant life director got the plan moving immediately, getting permission from Jacobsen and the board to grant the wish through their “Livin’ the Dream” program.

After they were given the go ahead, Jacobson signed on to assist with driving and safety. Schmid contacted Bonneville High School for permission to use one of their parking lots as the driving course.

Family was notified with more than a dozen showing up, and residents were bussed over to cheer Willis on.

“She’s been on the phone all day with people that couldn’t make it,” said Gene Ann Tanner, one of her five children. Two other daughters also made the trip to see their mom behind the wheel.

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Marine veteran and Mountain Ridge Assisted Living resident Belle Willis, left, smiles for a photo with Ogden City Police officer Camryn Faiola Thursday, July 6, 2017, at a parking lot near Bonneville High School in Ogden. Willis, who turned 94 last month, had her birthday wish granted to drive the bus through the “Livin’ the Dream” program. “I never thought they would go for it,” Willis laughed. Officer Faiola presented Willis with a certificate in recognition of “her completion of the Mountain Ridge Driving Course.”

Willis was halfway through lap two when sirens suddenly went off. An Ogden Police Department patrol car pulled into the parking lot and stopped behind the bus, lights flashing. Schmid had called them too.

The crowd laughed and cheered as Officer Camryn Faiola walked up to the driver’s side window and, after chiding Willis for speeding, presented her with a certificate in recognition of “her completion of the Mountain Ridge Driving Course.”

After the bus was loaded back up with a different driver behind the wheel, Willis sat in her wheelchair taking photos and visiting with family.

“This is all so wonderful, and the people there — they are just top notch,” Willis said of the Mountain Ridge staff.

As for any future plans of adventure, she isn’t so sure.

“I wanted to live to be 100, but I don’t know,” Willis said with a grin, “If I keep pulling stunts like this, I won’t be able to make it.”

Belle Willis, Marine veteran and resident at Mountain Ridge Assisted Living, center, poses for a photo with Mountain Ridge executive director Darren Jacobson, left, and Cheryl Schmid, right, senior vibrant life director Thursday, July 6, 2017, at a parking lot near Bonneville High School. Willis, who turned 94 last month, had her birthday wish granted to drive the community’s bus through the “Livin’ the Dream” program.