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Cleven Wardlow Sr., 88, CTA bus driver kept Bible at the wheel

Cleven Wardlow Sr. kept Bible wheel CTA bus he drove.

Cleven Wardlow Sr. kept a Bible at the wheel of the CTA bus he drove.

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Updated: June 2, 2012 8:16AM

There are far more unpleasant things in life than a CTA bus.

But once one has experienced a few stock characters of public-transit — the pushy panhandler; the pervy commuter, and the scary guy muttering to himself about the government listening in his thoughts — then boarding a bus can start to feel like entering an Edvard Munch painting.

So imagine the relief and warmth that often washed over riders on Cleven Wardlow Sr.’s bus.

“Good morning, God’s wonderful creation,” he’d greet them, his Bible on the dashboard. “How are you today?”

Mr. Wardlow, who posted a sign in the front window of his vehicle that identified it as “The Happy Miracle Bus,” probably used that greeting hundreds of thousands of times during his career as a CTA bus driver from 1952 to 1984.

“Be of good cheer, the Happy Bus is here,” he’d say.

His gospel songs and sermonettes so endeared him to riders that some world-weary commuters did an astonishing thing. They let other buses pass them by so they could wait to get on Mr. Wardlow’s bus. “If they didn’t see the Happy Bus, they would wait,” said his son, Cleven Wardlow Jr.

Mr. Wardlow died Thursday at a hospice unit of Holy Cross Hospital. He was 88.

During his time at the CTA, he received countless awards for friendliness. He drove more than two million miles without causing an accident.

His routes, usually on the North and West Sides, included State Street and Michigan and Ashland Avenues.

He was frequently named on “Best Of” lists about Chicago, and he appeared on Phil Donahue’s national TV talk show. Relatives said he had cameo roles as a bus driver in the Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby-Harry Belafonte 1974 film, “Uptown Saturday Night,” as well as 1975’s “Cooley High,” sometimes dubbed “African-American Graffiti” by film buffs who fondly call it a black version of the George Lucas film about 1960s teens.

Occasionally, Mr. Wardlow’s talk of God’s goodness did not sit well with all members of the public. Once, a hostile rider “didn’t want to hear no preaching,” said Cleven Wardlow Jr. He pulled out what appeared to be a gun. “He said, ‘I’m killing you this morning,’ and he clicked the gun. Out squirted water,” Mr. Wardlow’s son said. “Someone said, ‘It’s just a water gun.’ ’’

“Daddy said, ‘How do you know? Maybe the good Lord changed it from a real gun.’ ”

“Daddy opened the door and let him off,” his son said.

Another time, Mr. Wardlow was convinced the Holy Spirit turned the wheel of his bus to prevent an accident when a driver veered into his lane head-on.

He was born in England, Ark. and he grew up in Chicago’s Maxwell Street area. He attended St. Joseph High School and later worked as a machinist’s mate at Naval Station Great Lakes.

He and his wife, Margaret, raised their family in a home in the 1700 block of Hastings. When he drove down nearby Ashland, she made up a dinner plate for him. Their kids were the delivery service. “We’d walk up Hastings Street to Ashland. He’d open up the [bus] door and we’d be standing right there,’’ his son said, with chicken and dumplings, sweet potatoes, and cornbread flapjacks.

“He always taught us we were as good as anybody,” his son said. “He always took us to the flower shows and on picnics . . . we had our own special spot in Lincoln Park.” He also liked flying kites with his kids. A skilled carpenter, he once crafted all his childrens’ Christmas gifts out of wood.

“Mom and Dad kept us close and took us to church. And definitely when the street lights came on, [you had better] be in the house.”

Mr. Wardlow liked to play harmonica and practical jokes. Once, when the family was emptying bags of groceries, “Daddy had this rubber spider and he put it between the bags,” his son said. “He would squeeze the bulb and the spider jumped out.”

Mr. Wardlow is also survived by his daughters, Ruby Johnson and Antoinette Cowley; his other sons, Riccardo, Ronald, Wayne, Darold, and Lamont; a brother, James; 32 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren.

Visitation is 6-10 p.m. Tuesday at Leak & Sons, 7838 S. Cottage Grove Ave. His wake will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Roberts Temple Church of God, 4021 S. State St., where Mr. Wardlow was an ordained elder. A funeral is to follow at the church at 11 a.m. Burial is at Burr Oak Cemetery.

One of his most treasured memories happened during a long-ago Christmas season. A young man boarded his No. 156 La Salle Street bus and told him that he had been planning to kill himself — but that he changed his mind after hearing Mr. Wardlow talk about what God had done for him, according to an article about his retirement in a 1984 CTA Transit News.

“That,” Mr. Wardlow said, “was the greatest gift that anyone could have given me.”

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