OTTUMWA — Cheers went up from the crowd gathered at Evans Middle School as the Windstar bus made its final turn and parked in front of the school.

The scene has played out more than 200 times over the past 40 years, but Thursday morning was different. It was the end of Larry Northup’s final trip as the organizer of the Evans Educational Travel Program.

As Northup made sure the students had all their gear and had a ride home, he continued to receive hugs, handshakes, words of thanks and congratulations on his retirement.

“It’s bittersweet. I hate to give it up. But there comes a time, and it’s time,” he said as the parking lot cleared. “I’ve been able to work with some of the greatest people in the world. It’s a great opportunity, and I’m very appreciative. I’ve worked for the same employer for 54 years. Not many people can say that, and I appreciate that I’ve been given the opportunity.”

But what’s been most important to him over the decades are the students and their experiences. “Nineteen thousand kids home safe. That’s the most important thing,” Northup said. “All the trips are great. They’re all educational, which is important to me as a teacher.”

“They learn so much on the trips,” said Diana Cain, who has helped with the travel program for more than 30 years. She said they help teach life skills and responsibility along with the academic lessons. “It’s a really valuable program. I’m blessed to have been a part of it.”

“The Ottumwa community has something good going on with their schools,” said Ron Young, a former teacher and school administrator who now drives bus. In fact, he drove the Great Western Expedition the final seven hours Thursday morning in addition to many of the Evans trips. “The experiences the Ottumwa kids get, you can’t get that in a classroom.”

“A lot of lessons are taught on this trip,” said Ralph Skinner, an Evans sixth-grade math teacher who is taking over the travel program. “[The Great Western Expedition] is the most work, but you see things, maybe, the kids might otherwise never experience.”

“I think it’s about due,” said parent Aleigha DeLeon on Northup’s retirement. “He’s done so much for the schools. Doing the Evans Travel program is such a good thing. I hear he’s leaving it in good hands.”

“I’ll try, we’ll put it that way,” Skinner said.

The program began in 1976 with America’s bicentennial celebration. “People were doing a bunch of things to celebrate, and we decided to take a group of kids to D.C.” Northup said. “It grew from there.”

The program now includes Chicago and St. Louis, which are both weekend trips, the 10-day East Coast Trip, the Great Western Expedition, which is about two weeks, and a Florida trip, which is a reward for top academic performance.

Since that time, traveling with the program has become a family tradition for some.

“Oh yeah, I went on them. I went on all the trips that were available,” said DeLeon, who was waiting to pick up her daughter. “I wanted to make sure my daughter had the same opportunity.”

Cain said she began assisting with the trips as a parent and is now serving as a grandparent. People in the crowd discussed what members of their family had gone on which trips and when.

“The respect the former students have for Mr. Northup is unbelievable. You just don’t find that,” said Young.

“I think I’m down to grandkids now,” Northup said. “I find it hard to believe time can pass so rapidly, but it does.”

The amount of support that came out to Evans Thursday morning showed how much the Ottumwa community appreciates what Northup has created.

One man, though, traveled several hours to wish Northup well. Chuck Davey has also driven bus on many of the Evans trips, and he traveled from Branson, Missouri, to greet Northup. “I thought I’d come up and welcome him back.”

Rita Wolf, who has participated in many trips and prepared food for the Great Western kids this time around, summed up her thoughts in a simple statement: “It’s a wonderful vision that a man had 40 years ago.”

And as Northup walked away with tears in his eyes, you could see how much that vision meant to him.

— Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.