PLANT CITY — School bus driver Cynthia Gibson set out early Monday for the first day of classes in Hillsborough County. It was to be Gibson's last first day. A driver for 30 years, she planned to retire in May.
But Gibson, 59, never made it.
She was fatally injured on the way to work in a car crash along Airport Road in Plant City. Now, people across the district are mourning the woman known as "Ms. Cherry" — a fun, caring woman with a personality bigger than life, friends say.
She was a mentor at the bus garage who helped train less experienced drivers and loved to dance the Electric Slide.
"If we had issues dealing with at-risk kids, she could handle it," said Jim Beekman, the school district's general manager of transportation. "She wasn't afraid to talk to someone's momma."
Plant City police gave this account of the fatal collision:
A Tampa man, Franciou Romelus, 38, parked a semitrailer truck in the eastbound lane of Airport Road at about 5 a.m. He walked to the nearby security office of Florida Potato & Onion, where he was making a delivery. Romelus wanted to see if the business was open.
Gibson, driving east on the highway in an SUV, didn't notice the truck and smashed into it, police said. She was seriously injured and later died at a hospital in Lakeland. No charges will be filed in the crash, police said.
Beekman said he can't imagine the transportation department without Gibson.
"She was a very outgoing person," said Patricia Hart Scott, a bus driver. "Very sweet, willing to help."
This year, Gibson was expected to drive a magnet school bus route with her two grandchildren on board, Beekman said. While Gibson was sometimes rambunctious, he said, she was always professional when it came to driving students. Her positive energy rubbed off on everyone around her, he said.
"Countless folks have come forward," Beekman said in a news release, "making their own pledge to be a better person, to know not to take any moment in life for granted and to express thanks for the impact that Ms. Cherry made in their life."
Beekman first met Gibson in 2014 when he took over the transportation department. She told him she was one of his best bus drivers, if not the best. She also asked that he call her "Ms. Cherry." Beekman and Scott couldn't explain the origin of the name except that she had a tattoo of cherries on her neck, below her left ear.
Gibson lived in Valrico and was involved in charity work around the area, Scott said. The weekend before she died, Gibson was handing out backpacks to kids at Ragan Park during a back-to-school event.
"Those are going to be some big shoes to fill," Scott said.
Contact Sam Ogozalek at email@example.com or (813) 226-3430. Follow @SamOgozalek.