Connecticut school bus driver and dad, who died at 38, cared for students 'as if they were his own'

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

RIDGEFIELD —  For the past four years, Robert Doerr was known as "Mr. Rob" to all the children on Bus 36, which drove to many of the schools in town, including St. Mary School, Scotts Ridge Middle School, Scotland Elementary School and Barlow Mountain Elementary School.

Doerr, a New Fairfield resident and father of a 4-year old-son, died Monday at Danbury Hospital. He was 38. First Student, the bus company that employed Doerr, will retire No. 36, in his honor.

"He was a great, great devoted father," said Doerr's mother, Cheryl Esposito, about her son. "When (Rob) learned that he was a father, he dropped everything and he became a bus driver to bond with his son. He went to every doctor's appointment. They were just joined to the hip. Every single day, all you heard was 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.'" 

Doerr's family and friends set up a fundraiser in his name. Donations are going to expenses and a trust fund for his son, Leon Danka, who sometimes tagged along on school bus rides. The fundraiser, called "Help Robbie’s family and Son," has raised over $9,500 since it was created Wednesday.

A Celebration of Life for Doerr will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at Danbury Memorial Funeral Home, 117 South St., Danbury. 

"Robert loved his career as a bus driver with First Student Transportation in Ridgefield," his obituary states. "He loved all the children and they loved him back and he often took his son to work with him. His goal in life was to make everyone smile, and he was excellent at achieving this goal. His greatest passion and joy in life was raising his son, cherishing every moment with him."

'A perfect father'

Esposito said Doerr, a U.S. Army veteran, would do anything for his son, who has the same name as Doerr's late brother.

She said father and son loved being outside —  hiking, playing soccer, and biking together.

"He taught him how to swim," she said, adding, "He was a perfect father."

Bethel resident Jessica Nunez, who is a bus driver, said she and Doerr were friends outside of work and would often socialize together and play games.

Nunez added Doerr was "so funny. He would crack jokes all day long. He would do funny impersonations of everyone and anyone. When you knew he was around, you knew you were gonna laugh, all day."

"We would go to my house a lot of times. All of our kids would play. We went camping in Rhode Island," she said. "He would take the kids jet skiing, tubing, and swimming. He would always just be doing something."

Danbury resident Jenna Burdock, another bus driver, said Doerr was the "most outgoing, funny human being. He really made anybody laugh on the darkest of days."

Kids were in 'good hands' with Mr. Rob

To pay tribute to Doerr, First Student bus company will retire bus No. 36 and will give the number to his mother, said Doerr's aunt, Joy Angelica, of New Milford.

Parents said Doerr was beloved by their children and they felt safe with him behind the wheel. 

"The kids really loved 'Mr. Rob,'" said Ridgefield resident Steven Gmelin, whose four kids had Doerr as their bus driver for the past 3 1/2 years. "His Scotland ES bus route, Route 36, was infamous. Not an easy route, yet he always had a handle on it and ensured the safety of our kids."

At the bus stop, he always positioned the bus so that traffic was fully blocked, Gmelin said. 

"It was a small thing, but it gives parents of elementary school kids the sense of confidence that he's looking out for them," he said. "He'd wave as he stepped on the accelerator and drive off. ... It gave me comfort that the man that was driving my entire world, was on top of it. I'm crushed that a good man, a father of a young boy ... left us too soon."

Ridgefield resident Robert Martin, whose daughters rode the bus with Doerr, recalled the times when Leon would ride the bus with his father.

"Any afternoon where his son Leon tagged on the bus made for a special ride," Martin said. "As a parent, I knew my girls were in good hands with Mr. Rob. He looked after our girls as if they were his own. ... We'll really miss seeing his smiling face, with his familiar backwards hat on, as he drives away from our house with his familiar double honk."