Astrike drives off into sunset

Submitted Photo
Don Astrike bids people farewell as Southridge's bus driver after driving some members of Southridge's Class 3A State Championship baseball team on June 23. 


A sendoff

HUNTINGBURG — For eight Southridge seniors, they got to cap off their high school careers by winning the Class 3A State Championship on June 22.

People stood the next day on the sidewalk that led to the League Stadium parking lot, cheering on the bus that was carrying some members of their Raiders — as police cars and firetrucks had the sirens going to escort them back. Cars honked and people waved and flashed thumbs up while the bus had arrived.

Winning state could not have been a better sendoff for those seniors, but the players weren’t the only ones to have one.

Driving the players back for the final time was Don Astrike. The 1955 Huntingburg graduate was supposed to have been retired from driving the bus for the Southwest Dubois County School Corporation since 2014, but added an extra seven years to the decades of trips, sporting events and memories forged from bonds with student-athletes and coaches.

He thought to himself, ‘This is it, Donnie,’ as some that he drove helped shut the bus windows. Astrike was on the verge of shutting the bus door, but Raiders coach Gene Mattingly wasn’t about to let him leave just yet.

“The coach hollered, ‘Donnie, don’t close the door yet!’” he said. “So, he hollered at the fans and said, ‘Give Donnie a sendoff,’ and they all started hollering, thanking me and stuff. A lot of people got me standing in the bus waving to them, thanking them and I said, ‘Go Raiders!’ and I drove off.”

Astrike couldn’t have thought of a better sendoff, as he led cheers for Raider Nation at Victory Field, with all three of his daughters there with him: Debbie, Janet Putney and Cheryl Hinton.

“None of them are baseball fans, but they just fell in love with this team,” he said.

Janet lives in Columbus, and Cheryl had a short trip as an Indianapolis resident, but Debbie drove out from Tennessee that morning and headed back to the Volunteer State that night to be at work the next day.

Joining them in spirit that night was Margie, the family matriarch. The year 2020 gave hardships to a countless number of people worldwide, and for this family, it was no different. They lost Margie on Oct. 29 at the age of 82.

For Debbie, Janet and Cheryl, they said goodbye to somebody who helped bring them into this world. For Don, he said farewell to someone whom he called his co-pilot — who accompanied him and sat behind him on so many of those trips when he drove the Raiders.

The struggles sometimes persist with Don, who bid goodbye to his co-pilot eight months ago this week, and was sometimes on the verge of tears as he sat at his table talking to the Herald on Monday about his wife that he lost just shy of their 61st wedding anniversary.

“She loved sports and stuff,” Don said. “In fact, at the baseball game Tuesday when we won it, I broke down — I started crying because I thought of her, and was so happy for the kids and stuff.”

Don imagined that Margie would’ve also been standing, yelling and crying had she been there for the state championship game. But he received text messages from people noting the tears running down his face, and the people telling him that she was watching.

Losing a spouse, especially one of almost 61 years, can take a toll on some people, but Don credits his family and friends for helping him get through it.

“We had almost 65 years together,” he said. “I kidded everybody at the funeral, I said, ‘It took me four years to convince her I was the one.’”

In the beginning

The state championship put the cap on a career that began in the early 1970s, when he had a business nearby his alma mater — and some of the bus drivers at the time asked if he would consider substituting for them sometime.

“All you had to do was go to the licensing branch, I think I might’ve taken a questionnaire — 10 questions, and that was it,” he said. “And of course, that was how I got started.”

He spent time on routes in the early 1970s, and unexpectedly also took over a bus driven by Dick Grewe after he took Southridge’s custodian job — and before he knew it, the number of buses he had kept expanding.

Don’s tenure as a bus driver for Southridge began during the 1983-84 school year — just missing out on the football team’s Class A State runner-up finish in 1982, but right before the boys basketball team made it to the Final Four in 1985 and 1986.

“When I started doing it, that was the first thing I told the athletic director (Jim Bardwell at the time), and when he asked me, I said, ‘Well, I’ll try it, but one thing about it — my wife gets to go along.’”

His daughter, Janet, graduated in 1986 with members from that team. He remembers what a trip it was going to Washington and coming back with the team that won the first regional championship in program history in 1985.

“As far as I could see, all there was was headlights behind us,” he said.

Don was taken aback by how nice the student-athletes were, and told of the parents who thanked him after the season for getting their children to and from places safely.

“They didn’t even need a coach — they were so good, they could coach themselves,” he said.”

Hard times

Don is deep in his faith, just like Margie was. He considers himself blessed with good health, but that doesn’t mean it’s always been smooth sailing. Don has also served as Patoka Township Trustee for a long time, and there was one time when wearing the many hats he wore got to be a bit much.

“In 1990, I started having seizures,” Don said. “I hadn’t told my wife yet. It wasn’t too bad, but I’d get these spells where I’d start feeling this dizzy, and I could tell it was coming on. So, I knew what I had to do if I was driving — I had to get over. When I had those, and they were bad, I couldn’t sit in this chair, I’d fall off the chair and stuff.

“I was going out the school for my bus route one evening out by the cemetery and one of the spells hit me,” he continued. “And I had to stop in the highway, and turn my flashers on, set the emergency brake and was sitting there holding on the wheel.”

Police were nearby, and he was acquainted with them. They did a welfare check to ask if he was okay, but he insisted he was fine, and he made it.

However, police called and told his higher-ups of what happened, and Don feared he couldn’t drive anymore. For a while, he didn’t and he spent time being treated.

“I remember sitting in Jim Bardwell’s office and crying because I thought my driving days were over and stuff,” he said. “Jim said, 'Donnie, we’re not getting anybody, you’re going to be back.’”

Margie was a nurse, and inquired when they were in Evansville if it was an inner ear problem. He learned from a specialist that he indeed had an inner ear problem.

Don said that some cases are terrible, though his wasn’t, but stress was a factor — and he told the specialist of all he was doing.

“I was still running my garage — the repair stuff,” Don said. “I was a trustee, I was running my bus routes, I was running the ballgame trips at night. I’d get back at 10, 11 o’clock at night and I would go down to the furniture factory, and work three or four hours finishing up the shift down there and stuff — come home, maybe get to bed at two o’clock and get up at six o’clock the next morning.

“I had two girls (Janet and Cheryl) at Hanover College — and I was burning a candle at both ends,” he added. “And that was the problem.”

It was one of his worst times, and he had to quit some stuff, but the problem eventually subsided.

Life lesson

To drive the bus as long as he did, Don knew he had to enjoy kids and enjoy sports — which he does. He even dabbled a little bit as a basketball player in junior high and for his freshman year at Huntingburg.

“I quit my sophomore year due to a conflict with a coach, which I regretted all my life,” he said. “I told a lot of kids about it later on how much I regretted it — quitting, and that they should never think about doing that, work it out some way.”

One person he talked to was a girls basketball player for the Raiders who wanted to stop playing. Instead, she stuck with it, and helped Southridge win its first state championship ever in any sport with the 1998 Class 2A state crown.

Don, Margie and the community all cheered her and the rest of her teammates on as they brought the big prize home to Huntingburg. Don and Margie were big Larry Bird fans, and Bird coached the Indiana Pacers at the time.

Southridge triumphed in the Pacers’ old stomping grounds of Market Square Arena, and the Astrikes brought Bird’s old Boston Celtics jersey to hold up high while also cheering on the Raider girls.

In fact, a photo of Don holding the jersey appeared in the book “Larry Bird, An Indiana Legend,” from the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News.

“I couldn’t believe it, I thought they were kidding me,” Don said.

That moment from the state championship game is forever captured in the book. A tour of Don’s garage will show framed photographs from that day, including one with Margie and the jersey, plus another of holding the state championship trophy.

Look around the garage, and many things stand out — those photos, many photo albums, signed baseballs and basketballs, plus his plaque as a recipient of the Spirit of Southridge Award.

You might have to look closer, though, to notice a time when that Southridge girls basketball player who wanted to hang it up was there for Don after Don was there for her.

He had a bout with prostate cancer in the late 1990s, and on one of the shelves is a mug he received from the player that was waiting for him after his surgery. On the mug is a heart with the message, “There’s a spot in my heart for you!”

“She was a special girl, and I think I maybe helped her a little bit to stay in,” he said of the player.

Moving on

People who are fortunate to live to 84 likely don’t fancy themselves as an 84-year old kid, but that’s exactly what Don considered himself and also as one of the boys when he drove members of the Raiders back from Victory Field to League Stadium. He was honking his horn and waving at everybody, as Janet rode on the bus and took a lot of pictures on the way back.

He has another year left on his term as trustee, and is free after working in the mornings. Don might go be with his daughters for a few days, or reminisce with his photo galleries.

Don let it be known, though, his bus driving days are done for good.

“I was kidding my three daughters the other day about maybe I’ll reconsider this retirement business, and they said, ‘Oh no, you’re not!,’” Don said. “So, I’m retired.”

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