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Frank W. Cyr, 'Father of the Yellow School Bus,' Dies at the Age of 95

Frank W. Cyr, the professor emeritus of rural education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who was known as the "Father of the Yellow School Bus," died Tuesday, August 1, at a nursing home in Stamford, New York. He was 95 years old.

Professor Emeritus of Rural Education At Teachers College, Columbia University

Frank W. Cyr, the professor emeritus of rural education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who was known as the "Father of the Yellow School Bus," died Tuesday, August 1, at a nursing home in Stamford, New York. He was 95 years old.

In April, 1939, Cyr organized a conference at Teachers College that drew transportation officials from each of the then 48 states, as well as specialists from school-bus manufacturing firms. At that conference, funded by a $5,000 grant from the Rockfeller Foundation, the participants established national school-bus construction standards, including the standard color of yellow for the school bus.

Cyr, however, always thought the color was more orange than yellow.

The color was selected because black lettering on that color is easiest to see in the semi-darkness of early morning and late afternoon. It became known officially as "National School Bus Chrome."

Until that 1939 conference, there were no standards for the construction of school buses. In 1937, Cyr had begun a study of school transportation and had found that children were riding to school in all kinds of vehicles, including trucks and buses of all different colors (one district, hoping to instill patriotism in the children, painted their buses red, white and blue).

In Kansas, one district transported children to school in horse-drawn wheat wagons.

School bus manufacturers were complaining that, because each district could set its own standards, they were not able to mass-produce the buses on an assembly line.

The Teachers College conference met for seven days and the attendees voted on a total of 44 standards, including body lengths, ceiling heights, door specifications and aisle widths. Most of those standards have changed since 1939, but the color has remained the same.

In April, 1989, Cyr was honored at a luncheon at Teachers College marking the 50th anniversary of the original conference. The luncheon was held in the Grace Dodge Room at the College, where the original conference had been held.

At the luncheon, Cyr recalled that strips of different colors were hung from the wall and the participants in the 1939 conference talked until they narrowed the color down to three slightly different shades of yellow. The variation in shades was allowed, Cyr explained, because the color of the paint could not always be mixed exactly.

Cyr also said that he and the other attendees at the conference always used safety as the first criteria for the school-bus standards. "The most often asked question was 'Will this standard improve safety?'" he recalled at the luncheon.

In the 1950's, Cyr also experimented with teaching by telephone in his educational administration classes at Teachers College. When he retired in 1965, he moved to Stamford, New York, where he was instrumental in establishing an educational television system for the rural schools of the Catskills.

Today, a television station in Stamford, New York, is used to send out advanced placement classes to the rural schools of the area. That station is located in the Frank W. Cyr Educational Center of the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

In 1941 and 1942, Cyr served as associate director of the National Citizenship Education Program in Washington, DC. He also chaired a federal conference in 1942 that set school transportation policy during wartime.

Until a few months before his death, Cyr was working on a book about the rural school of the 21st Century.

A native of Franklin, Nebraska, Cyr was born on July 7, 1900. He said he could remember watching wagon trains move across the plains as a boy. He attended Grinnell College in Iowa and then earned his bachelor's degree in education at the University of Nebraska in 1923. He was the superintendent of schools in Chappell, Nebraska, before coming to Teachers College as a graduate student in 1930.

He earned his Ph.D. in 1933. He wrote his dissertation on "Responsibility for Rural School Administration," and that dissertation became a book published by the Teachers College Bureau of Publications.

He was the coauthor of The Small High School at Work, published by the American Book Company in 1936, and the author of An Introduction to Modern Education, published by D.C. Heath Company in 1937.

In 1940, he authored "A Policy for Rural Education in the United States," which was published as the yearbook of the Rural Department of the National Education Association. That same year, he served as president of the Rural Department of the NEA.

He joined the faculty at Teachers College in 1934 and taught there until his retirement in 1965.

He is survived by one son, William P. Cyr of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania; one daughter, Kathryn Ruth Cyr of Hastings, Nebraska; one brother, Leland of Franklin, Nebraska; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

It was William Cyr who, as a child, asked the professor, "If you're the father of the yellow school bus, what does that make me?" Cyr replied that, whenever he saw a school bus, the boy could say, "There goes one of my brothers."

Published Friday, Jun. 28, 2002