OLEY, Pa. – Otto Nuss let the children on his school bus call him by his first name, rather than stuffily refer to him as "Mr. Nuss." School administrators said he cleared the snow at bus stops so his kids wouldn't slip.
Friends and school officials wondered why a mild-mannered school bus driver would allegedly load his rifle and drive 13 children to Maryland instead of to their private school in rural eastern Pennsylvania.
"It's totally out of character. He's a very good neighbor, a kind and gentle man. He's even fed our dog for us when we've been gone," said Lindy Postell, who lives across the street from bus driver Otto Nuss.
She called Nuss a conscientious driver who had put chains on the tires of the bus only a few days ago because he was worried about snow on the back roads.
Robert Becker, administrator of the Berks Christian School, where the bus was supposed to go, said there were "no hints of anything like this in any way, shape or form. It was completely out of the blue."
Nuss had recently borrowed a shovel from a secretary to clear a path for the children to walk to the bus, Becker said.
Police said that Nuss, who was in custody on federal kidnapping charges, picked up the students at Oley Valley High School between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. Thursday for the six-mile trip to the Berks Christian School in Birdsboro, but never arrived.
None of the children was hurt and their ordeal ended six hours later and more than 100 miles away in Landover Hills, Md. Nuss, 63, was scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in Philadelphia on Friday.
The children said that — like always — Nuss treated them well during the trip.
"I don't think we ever felt like were in imminent danger," said 9th grader Tyler Rudolph, 15. "He made it very clear he didn't intend to hurt any of us."
Ashley Ziemer, an 11-year-old fifth grader, said Nuss was so relaxed, some students believed his claims that they were on a field trip.
"We didn't really know what was going on," she said.
Nuss lived alone in the rural community of Colebrookdale, in a newer split-level house on a hill overlooking a pond. He kept the school bus in the driveway, Postell said. A post on Nuss' property displayed a novelty crossing sign showing a silhouette of a hunter carrying a gun and a bird and the words "Old Hunter Xing."
Postell said Nuss had been bothered by a recent minor accident with the bus in which one of the side-view mirrors was struck.
Nuss was retired from a previous job and had not driven a school bus before this year, according to Cindy Calcagno, assistant transportation director for the school district.
Calcagno, who spoke with Nuss at the school at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday, said he seemed fine.
"He loved the kids," said Calcagno, who had driven the route until this school year, when the district contracted it to Quigley Bus Service, where Nuss worked.
Nuss told Calcagno that he was never married and had no children.
His brother, Eugene, who also lives in Boyertown, declined comment.
Nuss had passed both criminal and child-abuse background checks, according to Superintendent Jeffrey Zackon of the Oley Valley School District. He would have also needed a commercial driver's license to be hired, Calcagno said.
"Obviously, we have to re-examine the whole process. Obviously, I'm concerned," Zackon said.
Terry Van Lear, president of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association, said 80 percent of all school buses in Pennsylvania are operated by private contractors. Prospective drivers are required to undergo extensive background checks, he said.
"In Pennsylvania, we got a pretty good set of standards that protect our children. However, I thought we had a good system in our skies until Sept. 11," Van Lear said.
Boyertown Police Chief Darius Puff said Nuss had never caused police any problems. His only meeting with Nuss involved a car accident more than a decade ago, Puff said.
Nuss graduated from Boyertown Area High School in 1957. According to the yearbook, Otto Lawrence "Sonny" Nuss was an avid hunter who hoped to become a farmer.
Nuss worked for 30 years at Mrs. Smith's Pies in Pottstown, which is now closed, according to reports.