Whether as a driver or DJ, transit operator strives to leave a positive impression

Transit Operator Joe Smith grins when asked whether he has made any friends along the way of his 20-year plus career at GoTriangle. A woman he met one day comes to mind first. She worked as an administrative assistant for Scynexis in Research Triangle Park. One day back in 2004, he says he was driving a shuttle around RTP for GoTriangle – then called Triangle Transit Authority – and the woman made herself invisible so that she could be his last passenger although her stop was supposed to be the first.

“She was hiding,” he says, smiling as he recalls her words that first day, adding: “I’ll give you my version – her version might be different! She said, ‘Don’t forget me.’ I said, ‘Where did you come from?’ ‘I’ve been here all the while,’ she said. From that incident, that’s when we arranged our first date, and then we went out a few times, and then eventually, we got to know each other, and we started dating.”

He and that passenger, Zina, have been happily married going on 17 years now, and he likes to joke about it: “I tell my wife, if she leaves, I am going with her!”

In a time when most employees stay at a job only about four years, Smith is often asked how he has managed to enjoy one job for nearly a quarter of a century. “It’s a fit for me because I’m a people person,” he says. “I like meeting people, and I believe being in the transit operator position that you can make a difference in somebody’s life by meeting them first.”

Smith’s philosophy on life, work and hobbies reveals the pleasure he gets from each is altruistic. “I am a faith-based person,” he says. “I believe that you’re placed at a place because of who you are and you don’t meet people just coincidentally. I believe you meet people because there is something that you can put in their life.”

Every day when he gets on a bus, he says, he knows he might be the first smile a passenger will see.

“I don’t know what they came from at home – they could come from a bad situation – and I will be the first one who could say something nice or tell them to have a good day,” he says.

Smith grew up in Ahoskie, North Carolina, the second of seven boys in a close-knit family. After graduating from high school in 1979, he studied math at North Carolina Central University because he wanted to be a teacher. However, he didn’t like the elective classes he had to take to complete his degree, so he left the university in 1982, finding work on the loading docks at Frederickson Freight and Old Dominion Freight Line. In 1997, when he saw an opening for a substitute assistant teacher at Turning Point Academy in Durham, he applied and got the job.

“I went to teaching just to try it out because it was my desire,” he recalls. “So I started off as a teaching assistant and going back to school. Then I found out teaching wasn’t something I wanted, because you have to have a lot of patience to be a teacher and you have to be able to support low pay.”

Ironically, it was that teaching job that helped him land a job at GoTriangle because the school required that all teaching assistants drive the school bus. At first, Smith resisted getting his commercial driver’s license, but he eventually gave in and discovered that driving wasn’t bad at all. A year and a half later, when he saw that TTA and DATA, now GoDurham, were hiring, he took the first offer he got, which came from GoTriangle.

Since joining GoTriangle in October 1999, Smith says, he has become close to some of his regular riders, learning their first names and routines. Other riders remember him although he doesn’t always recognize them. “I’ve met a lot of people on the bus,” he says. “It’s a good feeling when you’re driving and when you don’t remember people specifically, but they will come up and say, ‘Yes. You were my bus driver. You were nice. You used to help us out.’”

One important life lesson Smith says he learned on the bus more than a decade ago is never to judge people.

On that particular day, when Smith took over a route, someone told him one of the passengers was drunk. Smith checked on the passenger, realized he was unresponsive and took action.

“I called Dispatch, and then they called emergency,” he recalls. “The guy wasn’t drunk at all. He was a diabetic, and his sugar had dropped low.”

That encounter taught Smith never to assume anything, he says.

“If I had kept driving and assumed he was drunk, the ER told me he could very well have gone into a diabetic coma,” he says. “So I don’t judge people when they get on my bus any more. I don’t assume anything. Now I will check on them.”

Smith’s laid-back, social nature makes him a natural DJ, a hobby that relieves his stress while allowing him to cater to other people.

“I like playing music, and I like seeing people having a good time. That’s the whole gig,” he says. “I just look at it as an escape, having a good time, because in this world you need some form of escape every now and then.”

For years, Smith has been the DJ at GoTriangle events, from holiday parties to our Safety Day to past Ice Cream Social. Smith’s current supervisor, Robin Leonard Nweke, says Smith’s commitment to help at agency events illustrates his giving nature.

“Joe is an exceptional and highly professional bus driver,” she says. “He has an impeccable record, and he is the kind of bus operator that goes even outside of his job description to do things for the organization, to contribute in many ways his own personal talents. He’s done it year after year, so it hasn’t been a one-time thing.”

Making a difference whether he’s driving the bus or playing music just seems like the right thing to do, Smith says. “When you go somewhere, when you walk into a room, even if you’re there just 10 minutes, there should be something to say you’ve been there,” he says. “Living should not be a wasted moment. You’ve given life for a reason.”


Pictured above, Smith’s supervisor, Robin Leonard Nweke, turned the tables on him in 2019 and made him the guest of honor as his coworkers celebrated his 20th work anniversary.

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