I was indebted to William A. Luke long before he called unexpectedly in 2005 to welcome me to the North America Bus Industry — his passion and lifeline. Bill’s call was a welcome surprise as I was adjusting to my new position as writer and editor for the bus trade magazine he founded 40 years earlier.
Bill’s interest and fascination in buses and for the people building, selling, operating, and maintaining buses and motorcoaches, as well as those who serve the industry in any way, encompassed nearly all his 98 years — from his childhood until his death this past January.
He had called to offer his approval of my work so far, as well as a few sage suggestions. I took this as an early milestone, still feeling like a stranger in my new world of buses and bus people. I connected with Bill personally for the first time several years later at the UMA Expo when I had grown more settled and confident.
We sealed our friendship through the years with continued phone calls and email exchanges from his home in Spokane, Wash., kibitzing over industry news and the issues of the day. He gave me updates on his writing and bus book projects, which I was always honored to review as they were published — and he always had a joke for me.
I’ll never forget the day in 2016 when he called to tell me his endearing wife, Adelene, had passed away. She was his partner in life and in business and a stalwart pillar of strength throughout their 62 years. He told me of his plan to move into a nearby retirement and assisted living community. Yet, in his grief, I also heard his renewed commitment to his work and to forge on.
Three years ago, I was writing under contract for Prevost; the year of the Canadian coachbuilder’s 95th Anniversary, which coincided with Bill turning 95 as well. I felt such numerology in play between Prevost founder Eugene Prevost and Bill, who grew to become the industry’s preeminent author and historian, should not go unreported.
In many ways, Bill’s interests and dedication to the industry paralleled Eugene’s values and spirit that guided the Prevost organization. Once I realized their connection, I called Bill and invited myself to the party.
He suggested I come earlier if possible, otherwise I might have had to wait in line as the calls were starting to roll in. I learned more about my friend during those three days with him than our years of occasionally calling and messaging.
To the point of my story, in the winter of 1924, Eugene Prevost was nine years into his career as a woodcraftsman, building high quality church pews and school furniture from his shop in St Claire, Quebec. Meanwhile, Bill was getting his bearings as a newborn in Duluth, Minn., and on his way to discovering the world of buses that would eventually define his lifelong passion beginning at age nine.
Eugene stepped off in a new direction the day his good friend, George Roy, stopped in and challenged him with his unique idea for a finely-crafted wood passenger compartment fitted onto the truck chassis he had just purchased. Prevost eagerly accepted with no thought of his efforts to accommodate Roy becoming the headwaters of the stream of prestigious coaches that would bear his name.
When most boys his age were into cars, young Luke was marveling over the majestic Greyhound buses rolling in and out of the station in Virginia, Minn, by then his hometown not too far from the early Greyhound headquarters in Hibbing, Minn.
“My favorite pastime as a kid was hanging around the station and talking to the drivers and ticket agents,” Bill said. “I worked odd jobs and ran errands, but I was fascinated from the get-go with the complexities with scheduling. I knew then my future would have to do with buses.”
A “mesmerizing” bus trip at age 11 with his dad to the Minnesota State Fair aboard a 719 Yellow Coach set him solidly on his career path.
As the wooden coaches were a hit with bus passengers and interest growing, Eugene went all in in 1937 with his first independent bus factory alongside his cabinetry business. Meantime, young Bill also had taken a shine to woodworking.
He carved model replicas of his favorite buses to scale from blocks of wood and hand-painted and lettered the companies’ graphics in exacting detail. He told me he carved and painted over a hundred such models, several of which were still in his possession.
Bill’s career in the industry formally began upon his return from the military following World War II when he met Adelene. Together they travelled the country, the continent, and the world by bus. He showed me a map of the North American routes they had travelled. He had traced over the highway and roads in red ink and dotted the cities they had visited. His map was so filled it reminded me of a hasty sketch of a Jackson Pollack painting.
Dave Millhouser, a bus industry veteran in his own right, reminded me that Bill typically road a bus or coach to as many industry meetings, conventions, and functions as he could.
“No one did that, at least to the degree of Bill,” he says. “It was his way of showing his unassuming loyalty and commitment to the industry.”
At some point in our visit, I asked Bill if he had ever driven buses. He said never; he had no interest.
Then casually and with little detail, as if he were telling me what he had for breakfast, he told me he had served with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and taken his place among the Greatest Generation on June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion. His unit cut the roads over the crest that led into France.
He mentioned this only to make his point on not caring to drive a diesel vehicle. He said his sergeant tried to teach him to maneuver a caterpillar but gave up sorely after a mere 50 feet of trying.
“He yelled at me, saying my best bet would be to dig a fox hole as deep as I could; just stay there and not raise my head,” Bill chuckled. “And here I am.”
Safely home, Bill’s initial professional pursuit was to own his own bus operation. However, he admitted that goal gradually ebbed as opportunities failed to materialize.
“Looking back, I was probably over ambitious,” he said. “That aside, the friendships I made in trying were invaluable.”
Settling in with Jefferson Lines, Minneapolis, Minn., in 1948, Bill perfected his skill at route scheduling over the next 21 years, and worked another five years with Empire Lines, Spokane, Wash. Bill and Adelene had honeymooned in the Canadian Rockies, which inspired their eventual move to the Northwest. He later added Spokane Transit Commissioner to his resume.
If Bill ever had his AHA! moment, it was the day he envisioned himself as an author and publisher. He and Adelene founded their company, Friendship Publications, in 1965 as a voice for the bus industry.
“We wanted our new business to not only cover the industry,” he said, “We hoped to reflect the kindness and respect people in the bus business show to one another.”
Still, he spoke of those who scoffed at their congenial business model.
“When people would say ‘good luck with that,’ we had only one response,” he said. “Frankly, there isn’t an easier way to do business. We grow and survive through our friendships.”
Bill also participated in the National Association of Motor Bus Owners. As chairman of the National Scheduling Subcommittee, he helped establish the Bus History Association. His fellow members fueled Luke’s insatiable interest in bus history with historical accounts and photos of their companies and early equipment — all which further awakened his calling.
Parallel to his writing and publishing, Bill and his colleague from Jefferson Lines, Joe Foty, launched their highly popular and successful Bus Maintenance Forums in 1964, which became an adjunct of Friendship Publications in 1972.
As Prevost has always devoted extensive resources to ensure customer satisfaction long after the sale, the company actively participated with Luke and Foty, hosting a series of instructive forums across the country, staged in garages and maintenance facilities. Eugene Prevost passed away in 1965 at age 66, around the time Bill launched his magazine.
Bill published 16 books on historic buses and bus operators that illuminate the evolution of the bus industry in North America. His archival materials and vintage photographs lie entrusted with the Northwestern University Transportation Center, Evanston, Ill., and The Henry Ford History Museum Complex, Dearborn, Mich.
In 1999, Prevost Car president and CEO George Bourelle met Bill for the first time as he was formulating tributes for the company’s 75th anniversary. Writing the Forward for Bill’s book, Prevost Buses; 1924-2002 Photo Archive, Bourelle noted the author’s willingness and enthusiasm to help preserve company memories and to show the younger set how it was way back when.
Fast forward 25 years. While Prevost was celebrating 95 years in during UMA EXPO 2019, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Bill was at home in Spokane huddled at his PC and laptop with cellphone in hand anticipating his 95th birthday in another few weeks — affirmation he was well and very much in the game; continuing to share his stories and maintain his friendships.
The upshot: Bill Luke too was moving ahead.
David Hubbard is a long-time industry stalwart and writer based in Arizona.