The city bus rolled to a stop downtown and exhaled its morning passengers. The diesel-belching beast paused before resuming its morning run to allow a teenage girl to cross the street.
For two years, the bus and the young woman arrived at the corner most mornings at approximately the same time. And each morning the driver smiled and waved — and held up traffic to ensure the pedestrian’s safety as she made her way to her job at the federal building.
“He was kind,” the former Rebecca Glasper recalled. “I didn’t know him then. I didn’t ride his bus, but he was always respectful. Every day I saw his smiling face and his wave.”
To occasional passengers and harried commuters, Lawrence Towers Sr. was just a bus driver. He was the first African- American driver hired by Las Vegas Transit, and he drove a route that included the Westside for more than two decades.
But to those who rode with him often, or got to know Mr. Towers and his wife, Bertha, at their humble home on K Street — located a long baseball toss from Doolittle Community Center and Park in one of the valley’s poorest neighborhoods — he was far more than an anonymous man behind the wheel. There on K Street, amid the choking weeds of poverty and family dysfunction, Lawrence and Bertha worked every day to raise their five boys and a girl. Straight-talking Lawrence mentored what seemed like half of the care-worn Highland Square subdivision.
They endured their share of heartache on K Street, an area where violence and drugs claim far too many young lives. They had opportunities to move away, but they stuck it out. The simple fact is, they believed in their neighbors.
Bertha found refuge in the Methodist Church. Lawrence, the bus driver, found his calling as a counselor to neighborhood youth and friend of the friendless.
That bus made for an odd pulpit, and Lawrence wasn’t one to preach, but he possessed the sort of rock-solid strength of character that attracted troubled kids to him. He was a good dad and a loyal husband in a neighborhood with few such positive influences. Lawrence and Bertha were married 61 years.
Whether they were riding his Las Vegas Transit bus or receiving their only meal of the day at his kitchen table, the neighborhood kids called him Mr. Towers.
Although he enjoyed driving the popular Strip run, he agreed to take over the Westside route in the wake of the civil unrest following the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At a time his fellow drivers refused to serve the working poor in the valley’s black neighborhood, Towers quietly accepted the duty despite the potential danger.
He was never robbed. He spent the better part of the next two decades chauffeuring a generation of maids, porters, waitresses, and schoolchildren from their neglected neighborhoods into the heart of a prospering Las Vegas.
Although he deserved special notice, the World War II veteran sought no medal of recognition for doing more than his job. But I say it’s never too late to say thank you.
Lawrence Towers Sr. died on July 17 at age 84. At his service the following week, the Rev. Marion Bennett sang his praises and the Towers family sat in stunned silence as friends, neighbors, and total strangers filed into Palm mortuary on North Main Street. The rows filled up and overflowed.
Then the people started to tell their own stories of how Mr. Towers gave them sound advice and lunch money, how he steered them away from trouble, how he helped them respect themselves when it seemed no one else did. The family learned of the rides he provided for free, of the neighborhood winos he lifted from the sidewalk and into the safety of his bus, and of the young men he pulled back from the edge of the abyss of drugs and gangs.
He was a community leader from behind the wheel of the transit bus.
“Your dad was the only (father and husband) in the neighborhood who didn’t run off,” one said.
Even weeks after the service, Ricky Towers was still moved by the outpouring of affection and respect for his dad.
“He was significant in changing people’s lives when they were sitting on the seat across from him on the bus,” Ricky said. “He gave up his Strip route so they could continue service in the black community. We just never realized until he passed away how significant he was in the community.”
Some would say he was just a bus driver, but those who met him know better.
His life is a reminder that the true worth of a man isn’t measured by the size of his wallet or the height of his status in society, but by the strength of his character and the depth of his compassion.
In that regard, Lawrence Towers Sr. was a man with few peers.
Now, about that young woman who used to cross the street with the help of Mr. Towers and his bus.
As fate would have it, Rebecca Glasper Towers was proud to marry one of the bus driver’s sons.
You can email John L. Smith at Smith@reviewjournal.com.