Floyd Palmer's long roadby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
To most of the world, Floyd Palmer is a successful businessman. His bus company, based in Mankato, is worth millions of dollars. But ask Floyd Palmer to judge himself, and he'll say he considers himself a failure. The source of this harsh assessment is rooted in a childhood shattered by poverty.
Growing up poor on a Minnesota farm, Palmer shouldered adult-sized responsibilities that taught him the value of hard work, but left emotional scars. A classic rags-to-riches tale, Palmer's story may be more about the lessons of life than material success. It shows that a person can create a new life.
St. Clair, Minn. — Floyd Palmer likes to say he bleeds yellow -- school bus yellow. On this day he's driving a busload of kids to their homes and farms scattered around the St. Clair School District near Mankato.
As he leaves town, he glances back at his garages. Palmer says St. Clair has a special spot in his heart. It's the first bus company he bought.
"Absolutely. That's my sweetheart. It's kind of like your first love," says Palmer.
A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESSMAN...
Palmer bought the St. Clair buses in 1974. Palmer Bus Service has grown since then. He now owns about 350 buses serving 17 school districts in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He also has a charter line.
Most days Palmer is in the office, a hard-edged manager watching over his company. Still, he finds time for his favorite job. Once a week or so he fills in behind the wheel.
"I love driving through the countryside and looking at the crops, and who's building a new house here, and this, that and the other thing," he says.
As the bus moves down a country road, the long rows of seats are about half full. Some of the students look out the window, some watch Palmer work the big steering wheel. There's the sound of small talk mixed with the clatter of rocks against the bottom of the bus.
Palmer has heard the sounds many times as driver and passenger. Years ago he was the student, sitting in one of the long rows of seats, staring at the back of a bus driver's head.
...UP FROM THE DEPTHS OF POVERTY
In the 1950s, rock and roll music heated up teenage hearts, but Floyd Palmer missed out on most of the fun. Palmer attended high school in Atwater, in central Minnesota. His family struggled to make a living on a nearby farm.
When young Floyd wasn't in school, he was working. He didn't have time or money to party.
"I never got to go to basketball game at school. I never dated a girl. I guess you really felt that you were nothing," says Palmer.
It was like he had a sign on his back. Palmer says his family's economic status was obvious.
"When you came to school, you stunk. Your clothes were shabby. And kids putting you down because you didn't have any money -- just laughing at you. It just wasn't normal," says Palmer.
Palmer says at times, his family had nothing to eat but oatmeal. Twice, his father lost everything on failed farms.
The poverty at home sharpened the slights young Floyd Palmer faced at school. His life was far from the poor but loving home of legend.
'I NEVER REALLY LOVED YOU'
"My mother told me once in later years, 'I never really loved you, but the only reason I put up with you is because of the money you brought home,'" says Palmer.
His father was just as distant, never showing affection. Palmer says you did things his dad's way, or he'd beat the hell out of you. The young Floyd sometimes slept in the barn to avoid the household chaos.
An end point of sorts came when a girl asked him out on a date. Palmer had a junker car. His dad's vehicle was a little better.
"I says, 'Dad, a girl asked me to the prom, could I please use your car?' 'Cause you know, you wanted to spiff things up a little bit, you know, put out your best shoe. And my dad told me to go straight to hell," remembers Palmer. "I never even went out with her, and then the guy that took her out to prom married her."
"The one thing I asked my dad for, he told me to go to hell. And I never asked him for anything after that."
Amazingly, Palmer is not angry at his now deceased parents. Financial failure crushed his father emotionally. Palmer believes his mother suffered bouts of mental illness. He says the problems consumed the two, leaving little time for the children.
"Their mode was to survive from day to day. If you had enough food to eat today, you'd worry about tomorrow," says Palmer.
It was never said out loud, but looking back, Palmer says he and a sister basically were assigned the role of mother and father. They were expected to help raise and provide for the other children.
Aboard the school bus, Palmer says he learned a lot from his parents. Mainly how not to do things. Take discipline: His father dictated. Palmer reasons. At one point a student starts to change seats. Palmer eyes him in the mirror.
"Do you want to go home, or do you want to think about moving around the bus? Are you going to move around again like that? OK, we'll go," says Palmer.
Floyd Palmer covered a lot of ground to get from childhood to successful adult. Lois, his wife of 40 years, has seen most of it. At times it's a struggle to keep up.
"Floyd's just always been a quick mover," says Lois Palmer.
That included their courtship. They met in January 1966, were engaged by April and married in November.
Lois Palmer remembers when she first met Floyd's family. She says her and Floyd's growing love colored her assessment of the Palmer family, seeing them through "rose-colored glasses," she says.
"I noticed that their house was kind of old and a little decrepit. But I just told myself that that's the way they wanted to live, and so that's how they live. And I don't have any problem with that, if that's what they choose to do," recalls Lois Palmer.
Floyd's early traumas would enter the marriage later, and still follow the couple today.
'TAKE MY KID'
Palmer's childhood ended early. One summer day, when he was 14, Palmer saw his father and another man arguing. His father wanted to back out of a promise to work for the other person. The man said he still needed the labor. Palmer's father turned to see the solution to his dilemma walking up the driveway.
"Dad said that he'd gotten a job driving truck, which paid more money. And my dad looked at the guy and he looked at me, and he says, 'Take my kid,'" remembers Palmer. "So about 10 minutes later I packed what I had -- maybe a pair of underwear, maybe a pants and shirt, that's about all I had -- and I guess at that point I never lived at home again."
His dad hired Floyd Palmer out to work for area farmers. Palmer lived with his new employer, often working seven days a week. Occasionally he was allowed a visit home. Most of his pay went to his dad. Worst of all, his new employer quickly revealed an ugly side.
"Worked you like a dog," says Palmer. "Came in at 2 or 3 in the morning and beat the hell out of you. He came in drunk and just beat the hell out of you. Never said nothing to the parents, because they wouldn't listen to you anyhow."
Young Floyd took solace where he could find it. He remembers one of the few things he owned was a battery radio.
"I could get this one station in Chicago at night. And you'd lay in bed at night thinking what it would be like, you living in Chicago or someplace," recalls Palmer. "I'd listen to music, and sometimes you could kind of lose yourself in it because of some of the songs, and you could daydream a little bit."
On the school bus, Floyd Palmer offers friendly chatter to each student. He says you never know what sorts of struggles a kid is having. He says his kind word might be the only one the young person hears that day.
"You always try to give them a smile and, 'How you doing? You look nice today,' or something to make sure that they feel good about themselves," says Palmer.
Exactly the sorts of words unsaid in his childhood. In a magazine article published in 2001, Floyd Palmer said poverty robbed him of self-esteem. The story, in Connect Business Magazine, had a big impact. He says he still gets e-mails, letters and phone calls from people who've read the story and want to know more.
His wife Lois says they discover a man who likes to downplay his skills.
"He thinks he's stupid, but he's not," says Lois Palmer. "He learns and he remembers so many things. He remembers numbers and peoples' names, and out of the blue he can dial phone numbers, and he can remember the buses at his companies. But still, he thinks he's dumb, because that's how he grew up, with people telling him that he was dumb."
DIDN'T WANT TO LIVE POOR
Floyd Palmer's life began changing after he graduated from high school. He joined the Navy to become an airplane mechanic. He says he found the family there he didn't have at home. After the Navy, Palmer spent time in the Twin Cities working, but also drinking too much.
Then he married Lois. He calls it one of the most important events of his life. She helped point Floyd towards a career. He took more training to become an airline mechanic.
In 1974, Palmer bought his first bus company. The material success is rooted in Floyd's troubled younger years. He discarded the bad and treasured the good. Even his father gets a nice word. Though he was harsh, he taught Floyd to work. Palmer says he rode that work ethic to a better life.
"I didn't want to live poor. I didn't want to bring my family up in the situation that I grew up in," says Palmer. "I wanted a nice home for them, I wanted to send them to college, we wanted to give them a good start in life. And with no education to speak of, the only thing I knew to get ahead was to work as hard as I could."
Friends wonder if Palmer works too hard. He's had cancer twice, a heart attack and bleeding ulcers.
For the Palmers, another part of their lives has been especially difficult. The have four daughters. Leah was born with cerebral palsy, and died at age 14. Amber was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome, autism and bipolar disorder. The other two daughters are healthy and will eventually take over the bus business.
Lois Palmer wrote about the struggles and joys of raising the children in a book, "Double Blessing." In it, she says Floyd's childhood continues to color their marriage. Lois says especially in their early years together, Floyd helped his parents and siblings with money. She resented the actions, but eventually came to accept them.
"He wanted them to appreciate him," says Lois Palmer. "And to say that they loved him and to be encouraging. To say, 'Good job.' And they never did. He has this bubble around himself and I can't get inside it, and that part hurts me."
Floyd Palmer says his wife and children are his greatest joy. He's also proud of his business and the people who work there. He refuses to say how much, but he donates money to help people down on their luck.
Still, his past is always around. It's evident in his life and the lives of his siblings. Like Floyd, they've struggled to overcome their early years. Several have battled issues like alcohol, drugs, attempted suicide and bad relationships. Floyd says he sees a psychiatrist to help sort things out.
"I still consider myself a complete failure. Always will," says Palmer. "People say, 'You've got something,' but in my mind I'm a failure. My dad and my mother never, ever told me I did a good job. I don't care if your kid builds -- anything that they do good -- give them a compliment, let them know you love them."
Aboard the school bus, Floyd Palmer the failure appears a complete success in a world he's built. It's a place where everyone gets a compliment. Everyone helps each other. Most importantly, in this world, every child is loved.
- All Things Considered, 06/19/2006, 4:44 p.m.