ST. PETERSBURG — The year after he finished 15 years with the Army, Herman Gordon got the job he had been waiting for: driving a bus.
Mr. Gordon had maintained the job would be perfect for him. His family came to believe he was right. He started in 1976, driving for what was then the St. Petersburg Municipal Transit System, the same year the system added air-conditioned buses to its fleet.
He drove up and down Central Avenue and to Tyrone Mall, carrying some of the same passengers for years. Riders found a chatty man behind the wheel who dressed up as Santa Claus during the holidays, handing out candy canes as they boarded.
Mr. Gordon, who drove public buses for 23 years, most often with a smile on his face, died March 10 at home of congestive heart failure. He was 73.
He commanded a quiet respect, said Donna Gordon, his daughter. Rambunctious teens either shaped up or were ushered off the bus.
Passengers did not know the sorrows he carried behind the banter, from images of war to the loss of his first wife.
Mr. Gordon was born in Gaffney, S.C., and moved to St. Petersburg at 19. He pumped gas at Bob Lee's Tire Co., married Sarah Terry and shipped out with the Army in 1960.
He maintained vehicles in two tours in Vietnam and said little about it when he came home. He left the army in 1975 and the next year became a city bus driver.
Sarah died in 1980 at age 55 of heart failure. The loss weighed heavy on her husband. He also suffered effects from his service in Vietnam: nightmares that violently disrupted his sleep and a skin discoloration later attributed to Agent Orange.
In 1984, the city and county bus systems merged to create the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Mr. Gordon's routes extended to the Clearwater Mall. Sometimes he drove buses to Derby Lane, the first Buccaneers stadium and Gasparilla festivities.
The PSTA gave him at least three safe driving awards over the years. Mr. Gordon enjoyed his rapport with regular riders and getting to know them over time.
They had his back. When a pedestrian claimed Mr. Gordon's bus had hit him, the complaint fell apart after several witnesses reported what they had seen.
After a brief second marriage and divorce, Mr. Gordon met a nurse who had also been married twice. He and Marilyn married in 1993 and lived on St. Pete Beach, where they shared a passion for cultivating roses.
"The third time is a charm, I guess," his daughter said.
But poor health forced his retirement from the PSTA in 1999. He and his wife traveled the country in a motor home, bringing back rose bushes from as far away as Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
Mr. Gordon's other joys included gin rummy games several times a week and chance encounters with former riders from his routes who recognized him and said hello.
They thanked him for being a consistently pleasant presence in their lives.
In 2010, the Gordons drove to Virginia despite his heart problems and her cancer. The VA awarded Mr. Gordon disability status that year due to his exposure to Agent Orange, his daughter said.
The couple limited their traveling to weekend jaunts to places like Fort De Soto. Then Marilyn died in August, making Mr. Gordon a two-time widower.
"I said, 'You're hard on women,'" his daughter said. He laughed, but jokes could only go so far.
By November, Mr. Gordon's health worsened noticeably. His daughter moved him to St. Petersburg.
He died at home under hospice care.
"He had a full life," his daughter said. "He really did."
Bushes of red and white roses the couple collected survive, some in pots and others growing in front of their house.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.