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Article posted: 10/19/2012 10:29 AM

Moving Picture: Pace driver lifts passengers' spirits

By George LeClaire

Michael Brown of Des Plaines really does whistle while he works.

Brown drives a 40-foot-long, 280-horsepower bus on Pace Route 290 through some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the Chicago area.

"This is one of the greatest bus routes there is because the ethnicity of the people changes all the time," Brown said.

The 13.25-mile route stretches along Touhy Avenue through Park Ridge, Skokie and Evanston.

"I want passengers to get off the bus in a better mood than when they got on," said Brown, a veteran driver of 26 years.

The cost to ride is $1.75, but the smile and warm greeting as the bus door opens is free.

Brown can say good morning in several languages, greeting riders five days a week and displaying a magical smile that is contagious to his passengers. Brown, however, doesn't hesitate to joke with passengers that normally catch an earlier bus, about running late after they are safely aboard.

Brown works a split shift, starting his first shift at 6 a.m. and second shift at 2 p.m. at Pace Northwest Division in Des Plaines. He begins each shift by inspecting his bus's lights, doors and safety features in the division garage terminal.

Then he drives a deadhead route (no stops or passengers) through Des Plaines to his predetermined Touhy Avenue Route 290 schedule that operates between the Howard CTA Red Line station in Chicago and the Cumberland CTA Blue Line station near O'Hare.

Brown is a member of Pace's Million Miler Club, which he earned for 25 years of safely driving a bus without a preventable accident. He was awarded Pace Employee of the Year honors in 2006, according to Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot.

During scheduled short breaks along his route, Brown likes to stretch his legs, talk to passengers and drink coffee from his silver thermos, the aroma of his fresh brewed coffee filling the bus. During a recent break he asked a passenger near the middle of the bus how his morning was going.

"You know me, Mike. I'm just enjoying the ride!" the rider replied.

The architectural landscape along his route, and the riders, have changed over the years. There are two malls and many shopping centers along the way that were built after Brown started his career.

Factories with laborers rushing to work with lunchboxes and reading newspapers used to line the route. Now, Brown said, it's students with books or office workers and shoppers busily checking their cellphones.

Up to 3,200 people travel his route daily, but only a lucky fraction arrive at their destination with an extra smile on their face and warmth in their heart.

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