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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“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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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.”