As published in the Record Journal on Sunday February 24, 2013
By Eric Heredia
WALLINGFORD — John Baksa gave his last driving lesson last Sunday. It was the student’s eighth hour on the road and it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but Baksa, 79, has decided to retire after 55 years of running the Modern Driving School out of a garage on Judd Square.
“Fifty-five years of anything is too long,” Baksa said.
Over the years, the part-time standup comedian has compiled many funny stories about students trying (some not as hard as others) to please the instructor sitting patiently in the passenger seat.
Baksa recalled one driving student who approached the fork in the road where Quinnipiac intersects with Ward Street coming off Route 15 near Wallace Park.
“I said to the lady, ‘Bear right,’ ” Baksa said. “Her response: ‘Where’s the bear on the right?’ She’s looking for an animal, so I couldn’t let it rest. I said it ran behind Sara Jay’s. Let’s find it!”
Another woman seemed to be squinting from the driver’s seat.
“I said, ‘Is the sun bothering your eyes, ma’am?’ She said no,” Baksa recalled. He asked her, “Why not?” “ ‘Because I’ve got my eyes closed’ — she’s driving the car, you know?”
Sometimes the trouble started before the student even got behind the wheel. Just last year, Baksa drove to Meriden to pick up a student for a lesson on a very hot summer day.
“It must’ve been 95 degrees out,” Baksa said. “She lived up on the hillside. There were 22 steps up to the front step, I counted them.” After calling and getting the answering machine three times, he walked up all those steps and rang the doorbell.
She answered the door and Baksa asked if she heard the phone. She said, “Yes. I did, it rang three times.”
“I said, ‘Why didn’t you answer it?’ ... You ready for this? She says the phone was in the other room. I could’ve strangled her. You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Baksa remembered learning how to drivein a Chevy from the 1950s with a stick shift. Despite getting stuck on a hill in Meriden, he passed his first driver’s test. While at Southern Connecticut State University, he needed an extra credit, so he took a driver’s education course.
Baksa opened his business in a one-car garage at 13 Judd Square in 1958. Eventually the garage was expanded, making room for more desks and a refrigerator containing candy bars and Gatorade for his students.
Modern was the first driving instruction school serving Wallingford and surrounding areas, Baksa said. Now he has passed his business on to his longtime partner, Bob Read.
“He’s more than served his time,” Read said. “Now it’s his reward to sit back and relax and let someone else do it.”
Read said the school usually teaches just fewer than 200 students a year. Its website says the school has helped 13,000 people earn their driver’s licenses.
“What’s nice is to see the youngsters you taught when you first got into the business. Now we’re teaching their kids,” Read said.
The retired teacher from the Berlin public schools remembered a fifth-grader whom he had taught how to drive.
“That’s when she was in high school I taught her how to drive,” Read said. “Now she lives behind me and tonight I had her son in class ... It’s rewarding. You must be doing a good job for people to remember you.”
Baksa is quick with a one-liner and has done standup comedy, opening for other performers.His voice and style resemble Rodney Dangerfield’s.
Last November, he performed at Il Monticello during A Night Out For Haiti, a fundraiser organized by Dr. Anthony Lendino.
Read said Baksa has made quite a living with his little quips, and people recognize him for his sense of humor.
“That’s his style, I’m kind of the straight man in the organization,” Read said.
At one point Baksa worked three jobs for 15 years to support his wife, Mary, and three children. After getting off the night shift at the Police Department, he’d get home, shower and go teach math at Lyman Hall High School. After classes were done, he’d switch gears and teach driving.
“What really carried me was the driving school,” he said, because police officers earned only $2 an hour back then, with no overtime.
Baksa said his family is planning his retirement party for September at Zandri’s Stillwood Inn.
Photo by Dave Zajac courtesy of the Record-Journal
John Baksa is retiring after 55 years as a driving instructor in Wallingford. “Fifty-five years of anything is too long,” he said.