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Volunteer driver, others keep Flivver on road, helping seniors

| Thursday, May 17, 2012, 12:31 a.m.
John Kearns, driver of Forest Hills' Flivver, picks up Centurion Commons residents Robert Dembly and Betty Adams on Wednesday, May 2, 2012. Flivver picks up senior citizens and people with disabilities to give them free rides to doctor appointments, the grocery store or anywhere in Forest Hills. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
John Kearns, driver of Forest Hills' Flivver, talks about his time working as a driver for the past 10 years on Wednesday, May 2, 2012. Flivver picks up senior citizens and people with disabilities to give them free rides to doctor appointments, the grocery store or anywhere in Forest Hills. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

Many drivers never master the art of parking. Jack Kearns of Forest Hills nailed the skill before it was legal for him to get behind the wheel."I started driving when I was 14," said Kearns, who turns 83 on Monday.He grew up in Wilkinsburg, where his father ran an Esso gas station and an adjacent parking lot for the now-defunct Pennsylvania Lincoln Hotel. There, Kearns parked cars for his dad after school.It was the 1940s, and business was slow. Gas and rubber were rationed, so the number of people driving was down. Kearns took advantage of his down time."I was stuck there, so I had the opportunity to study," says Kearns, who graduated 13th in his Wilkinsburg high school class of 440.He eventually earned a masters degree in engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and became a metallurgical engineer for Westinghouse, with expertise in atomic energy.But Kearns still keeps one foot on the pedal. He has been a volunteer driver for a decade for Flivver, Forest Hills' free minivan service for seniors and those with disabilities."I think if I weren't doing it, I would miss it," he said. "The people are so appreciative."Flivver has about 30 volunteer drivers, including Kearns. Riders phone the bus directly to make a reservation, and are often greeted by a cheerful driver who informs them, "It's a great day to ride the Flivver!" The vehicle picks them up at their doors.Flivver debuted in 1974 when borough council saw the need for convenient transportation for the area's growing elderly population. The borough purchased an old school bus with municipal money and a grant from Westinghouse Electric Corp. Originally, three women drove the bus and were paid, and passengers paid to ride.In 1975, council switched to volunteer drivers, and since 1983, the operation -- including vehicle insurance and the purchase of the minivan -- has been funded by private, noncorporate donations. It costs about $15,000 a year to run the service, said Don Newcomer, treasurer of the 12-member board that oversees Flivver through the nonprofit Forest Hills Community Service organization.Riders can donate at a box on the bus and others through an annual appeal now under way.The only government connection the vehicle has is a permanent parking spot at the borough building."Flivver" means an old junker. But the "junker" is now replaced every three years, and is equipped with an intercom and blue tooth technology.Flivver operates from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays, taking about 40 seniors and passengers with disabilities who are not confined to wheelchairs to and from destinations such as the bank, doctors' appointments, and the beauty shop, primarily in Forest Hills. Volunteers will make trips on Sunday to take riders to church, although Sunday is not a regularly scheduled service day.Flivver board chairman and Forest Hills police Officer Lenny Mesarchik noted that many riders' spouses are deceased, and their children don't live in the area."I've heard a lot of them say, 'We don't know what we'd do without this,' " Mesarchik said.Kearns said he has a personal appreciation for the service, having used it when he had hip surgery several years ago.As for his time at the controls, Kearns says he still enjoys it."You learn a lot of gossip," he added with a laugh. "I get the news before anybody else."

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