If you ask one of the students on Jake Jacobs’ route what they think their bus driver does after he drops them off at school in the morning, you might get a lot of different answers. It’s a good bet, though, that no one would answer teacher, professional illustrator and author.
But that is exactly what Jacobs does in his “second” life.
Jacobs holds a master’s of fine art degree from Syracuse University, where he also taught for five years. Lately, when he’s not behind the wheel of a WDMCS school bus, he spends his time working on a children’s book about bus safety.
A native of Urbandale, Jacobs learned to drive large vehicles in the Army. He was slated to be stationed in Germany when he got the call to be a part of the prestigious Presidential Honor Guard in Washington, D.C. Part of his assignment was to drive the tour coaches for the drum corps.
“When I came back to Iowa after I got out of the Army I went to Iowa State to study fine art,” Jacobs said. “I drove tour busses all the time to make money for college. So then I had all this experience driving big busses.”
After two years, he was recalled to active duty and served in the Gulf War during Operation Desert Storm. After that, he was able to return to school and finish his bachelor’s degree at Iowa State.
He then became a freelance artist and illustrator, later joining the Cedar Falls fire department, a job that gave him time to work on his art while offering a steady paycheck and benefits. He received a lot of work doing cartoons for fire-industry magazines.
“What I was doing were fire fighter cartoons,” he explained. “Jokes and things the guys would say at the station, I would illustrate it and send it in and they would publish it.”
While in Cedar Falls, he was introduced to nationally famed illustrator Gary Kelley and began working for him. Kelley’s work has been published in Time, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Atlantic Monthly. Kelley has earned 27 gold and silver medals from the Society of Illustrators and was inducted into its Hall of Fame. He urged Jacobs to attend Syracuse to get his master’s degree.
“I didn’t even know where it (Syracuse) was,” Jacobs recalled. “I asked if they wanted to see my portfolio and they said, ‘No. If Gary says you’re good, you’re good.’”
Family brought him back to the metro area nine years ago, where he has continued working as a freelance artist. He had always kept his commercial drivers license up to date, allowing him to join the WDMCS transportation staff as a school bus driver four years ago. He also keeps busy as an adjunct professor at Grand View, teaching page layout, social media and web video.
The idea for his book came from a little project he had done for a coworker.
“One of the associates at the bus garage one day came to me randomly and said, ‘One of the students on my bus is sick and I would like to send them a card. Could you make me a little school bus related card I could send them?’” Jacobs recalled. “I thought, yeah, I could come up with that.”
And then he drew the picture. Everyone liked it so much that he decided to come up with more, brainstorming ideas for things school busses could do. His first thought was selling the drawings as a line of greeting cards.
He looked closer at one of the drawings and decided a children’s book on school bus safety was the way to go.
“There are themes in school bus driving we seem to cover again and again and again,” he said. “These are the essential themes for behavior on the bus.”
Some of those themes are how and when to cross in front of the bus, staying seated and out of the aisle when the bus is moving, being at your stop five minutes before your schedule pick-up, using indoor voices and knowing where the danger zone is around the bus.
He would like to turn his book into an animated, multimedia program he could present to students, not only in the WDMCS, but in other school districts as well, to stress to them the importance of school bus safety.
It’s a natural fit for Jacobs. He was the go-to guy for the fire safety presentations the Cedar Falls Fire Department did at its local schools each year, not to mention his roles as professor, lecturer, former scout leader and father.
“You just have to keep putting it out there, and hopefully the person that could actually help you further this will step up,” Jacobs said. “It’s not always obvious who that person is. Sometimes you have to just feel it out and that person turns up.”