As RTD driver Darrell Gibson pulled into a stop Monday at Long Beach Municipal Airport, about 20 passengers waiting in line for the 5:55 a.m. bus began to wave.
Three women hugged the driver while boarding the bus and a fourth, Rhona Villegas of Long Beach, kissed him and slapped his hand as though he had just hit a home run for the Dodgers.
After a week's absence, Gibson had returned to Route 457, the Long Beach-to-Los Angeles run he had driven twice a morning for the past 4 1/2 years.
RTD management had transferred Gibson to a new line Feb. 23 because a change in his old run had expanded it to five hours and four minutes--four minutes longer than a part-time driver is allowed to work under the company's union contract.
Passengers on the 457 liked Gibson's cheerfulness and efficiency and they protested. Rider Sande Thomas wrote a letter and distributed unsigned copies on Gibson's two runs. More than 70 passengers signed the letters and mailed them to the RTD. Other passengers wrote separate letters or telephoned.
Faced with an outpouring of support for the driver, the company changed Gibson's original route to require less than five hours and allowed him to resume it. "It's unusual to have that many people write letters that are that detailed and that specific and that commendatory," said Arthur Leahy, RTD director of scheduling.
Gibson elicited the extensive support by developing what passengers say is a family-like atmosphere on the bus. Last Thanksgiving he baked bean pies using his grandmother's recipe and gave slices to passengers.
On Valentine's Day he taped large red hearts to the windows and last summer he painted a banner that said "Happy Birthday, Sande" and hung it on the window to greet Thomas.
"I try to treat them the way I'd like them to treat me," he said. "If I get a new passenger, one of the first things I would say is 'Where would you like to get off?' Because I know everyone's stop.
"I'll present them immediately with a schedule and let them know what time they'll arrive. I call out all stops and make sure they get out."
Eventually, he learned most of the passengers' names, occupations and family situations. Appreciative riders have brought their families to meet him and invited him to their homes for dinner and to a yacht party--invitations he accepted. They also have given him wool sweaters and other gifts for Christmas.
"I don't enjoy getting up at 4 a.m.," said Gibson, who arrives at his first stop at 5:35 a.m. "But once I get here it's exciting because there's something new every day.
"There's a cross section of economic and social exchange on the bus. One passenger will tell me about the lavish dinner parties she attended over the weekend or a small trip to Laguna Niguel.
"Or we'll exchange recipes," said Gibson, an accomplished cook. "It could be the various jobs people have, the various projects. Often they will get an idea from the group here on how to solve a problem or initiate an activity at work.
"We're just glad to see each other. We look for each other. If someone isn't here we say, 'Where is she? She was here Friday.' A couple of years ago a passenger passed away. We got together and sent flowers. Even when I was in the hospital, they sent flowers to me. They even came by and visited. They were constantly calling my wife for updates on my condition.
"Whenever there's a new family member they will bring pictures of the newborn or actually bring the baby to the door of the bus to show people what the baby looks like. Most everyone on our bus feels very comfortable, very relaxed, very secure and the interaction and relationships that you have are very cohesive.
"That is something I didn't initiate per se. It kind of happened naturally because of my personality and my reaction with people. I like everybody around whether on the bus or at home to feel comfortable. I will go out of my way and extend an extra length of my hand to make you feel comfortable."
Gibson, 36, evolved that philosophy growing up in Indianapolis where his mother taught art and his father worked as an engineer.
He ran on the track team at the University of Indiana, was graduated with a degree in physical education and communications, and moved to Los Angeles in 1971. He taught and worked in marketing before he took part-time employment with the bus company.
Gibson prefers part-time work, earning $14 an hour for a maximum of 25 hours per week, to full time. He wants the rest of the week free to teach weight lifting and currently coaches some of the top body builders in the area.
On the bus, however, he is devoted to his passengers. At the end of his first run three weeks ago he found a wallet containing $600 in money orders. Because he knows his passengers, Gibson knew that the owner worked at the Federal Building in Los Angeles and that her husband had just come off a strike against another bus company.