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A Conversation With: Cletus Koehler

Driver’s ed teacher knows about life riding shotgun

Ryan Schuessler

Cletus Koehler has been in the passenger seat for 41 years while teaching students to drive. He has taught generations of families in Columbia.

November 21, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Cletus Koehler might have one of the most important jobs in the world ­— teaching vehicle novices the ropes (or lanes, rather) of safe driving. After being in the driver’s education business for more than four decades, he says little has changed except that no one needs a paper map anymore.

Driver’s ed is also no longer required. Missouri is one of several states where it’s not necessary to complete courses before getting a driver’s license. But that hasn’t stopped students from seeking Koehler’s expertise. His track record speaks for itself. Aside from minor fender benders, there’s only been six accidents in 40 years, none of which were his students’ fault. “We just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. He attributes most of these accidents to the carelessness of other drivers. Sounds like someone needed driving lessons.

How did you get into driver’s education?

Originally, I wanted to be a race car driver. My parents didn’t think that was a good idea. I got an offer to teach driver’s education for three years in the Chicago area. Then Uncle Sam needed me in the Army from 1963 to 1965. I had a few other jobs here and there before I started going full time. I started teaching in Columbia in ’68. I taught full time at Hickman High School for seven or eight years. Then the program was discontinued in 1976 because it was too expensive — car insurance and all that. I’ve been doing it for 41 years now. It’s kind of an exciting field; you never know what to expect.

Describe a typical driving lesson.
We have about 30 different maneuvers that we go through. If I have someone who’s never driven before, we go to a parking lot. Some of them struggle just making left and right turns. I have a lot of students who don’t know the difference between the brake and the accelerator. When they get good at that, we go out to the residential streets. Then we go into city driving and go over one-way streets and roundabouts and changing lanes. Then we do the highway driving and merging into traffic. It’s a progression.

What is your favorite type of car?

Of course I like the old cars. Back in my day the Mustang was always a popular car, as well as the Corvette, Thunderbirds and all that. I’ve always anticipated getting one of those someday, but it probably won’t happen now. I’m too old for that. One of my favorites that I personally owned was a 1966 Ford Fairlane GT, a real sporty-looking car. It was exciting to have that.

Multimedia by Ryan Schuessler

What is your favorite thing about teaching someone to drive?
It’s rewarding to me when you have a student that has to start out at the very beginning, like starting at a parking lot. By the time they’re all done, it’s a great feeling for them. It’s gratifying for me to realize how we started out and what they have gained over the lessons. It’s gratifying to see how they progressed through the course. The student is really excited about it after they go from the parking lot out to the highway.

Explain the difference between teaching teens and adults.

I had a person that was about 76 one time. That’s pretty rare. Most of them are younger, but we do have a few adults. A lot of those are because their spouse has died, and they’d always been the driver. There’s been some (younger students) that have gotten tickets, and they have to take driving lessons from a qualified instructor. It’s hard for those people (to break the habit of speeding) because nowadays the driving is so fast and so quick.

How many people have you taught in your lifetime?

I’ve been doing this for about 40 years, and I have, on average, anywhere from 200 to 250 students a year. I’ve had the parents that I taught years ago, and I go to the house (to teach their kids), and they say, “Yeah, I remember you from a number of years ago.” Makes me feel kind of old when they do that. But I don’t have any definite plans to retire; I’ll probably continue as long as I can see well and react well and hear.

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