‘Hero’ bus driver hailed from Athol

COEUR d’ALENE — The Alabama school bus driver who died Tuesday while trying to protect the children on his bus from an armed kidnapper has deep North Idaho roots.

Charles “Chuck” Poland, 66, lived in Fernwood while growing up, and later moved to Athol, where his mother, Mildred Poland, and a sister, Vicki Upchurch, still reside.

“He was just a good person. His whole life was his family, his kids, his friends,” Upchurch said, in a phone interview Thursday with The Press. “He was very religious, and he lived it.”

Poland’s death is connected to a story now making national headlines. According to the Associated Press, Jimmy Lee Dykes, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, boarded Poland’s stopped school bus Tuesday afternoon and demanded two young boys. When Poland tried to block the man’s way, Dykes shot the bus driver several times and took a kindergartner off the bus.

Since the day of the shooting, Dykes has been holding the 5-year-old boy, whose name is being withheld, in an underground bunker on his property in Midland City, Ala. Hostage negotiators have been speaking to Dykes through a 4-inch-wide PVC pipe, trying to convince the man to release the child.

“Today, we are extending our hearts and prayers for the safe return of one our students and we are mourning a hero, 66-year-old Charles Poland, who gave his life to protect 21 students who are now home safely with their families,” said Dale County Schools Superintendent Donny Bynum, in a statement published Wednesday in the Dothan Eagle. “He was a valuable member of our transportation department, and we will forever remember him for the bravery he showed yesterday.”

Upchurch said she was shocked when she learned that her older brother had been shot, but not surprised that he was willing to die to protect the kids on his bus.

“He was kind and caring, and he always had a smile on his face,” she said.

Upchurch, a year younger than Poland, said she and her brother were very close. They attended Lakeland High School in Rathdrum. The siblings have a younger sister, Patti Hook, of Deer Park, Wash.

Poland’s Inland Northwest family members, including his 87-year-old mother, Mildred, are taking the man’s sudden death particularly hard, Upchurch said. She and her sister each lost their husbands to illnesses earlier this year.

After high school, Poland joined the service. He was stationed in Alabama where he met and married his wife of 43 years, Mary Janice Poland.

Upchurch, a former Athol mayor, said her brother was a retired diesel mechanic.

His wife worked as a substitute teacher.

“Everybody loved him. We’d see him probably every two years. This is just really, really hard,” Upchurch said.

She and her daughter flew to Alabama early Friday, she said. Services are planned to take place this weekend.

“This was just so unexpected and unbelievable,” she said.

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