Elizabeth R. Duff, first woman to drive a Nashville city bus, dies at 72

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This obituary is part of a series on people who died in the coronavirus pandemic. Learn more about the others here.

Growing up in the isolated city of Nashville in the 1950s, Elizabeth R. Duff once tried to sit in the front of a city public bus, where a sign warned that seats were reserved for whites. Her mother pulled her quickly back.

“She didn’t like it when people told her she couldn’t do certain things,” Ms. Duff’s daughter, Virpi E. Carter, said. “She probably thought, ‘Someday I’m going to sit at the front of the bus and I’m going to drive this bus. “”

And that’s what she did. Ms Duff in 1974 became the first female bus driver in Nashville, her union said, roaming the streets of the capital for more than three decades. Described by other drivers as cool, calm, and unadorned, Ms Duff was tough on misbehaving drivers, but known to reach for her own purse to help cover fares.

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Being on the front lines breaking down gender and color barriers also meant Ms Duff endured sexism and racism, with people questioning a woman’s ability to lead and sometimes directing epithets from the seats behind her.

“It was a totally male dominated field of work no matter where you were in the United States,” said his son Seneca Duff. “To see a woman driving a bus as good as any guy, if not better – some got jealous, some were shocked, some were really proud. She had it on both sides.

Ms Duff died on February 13 in a Nashville hospital. The cause was Covid-19, his family said.

Elizabeth Ray was born in Nashville on January 15, 1949. Her father, Joseph Ray, worked in a grain mill. Her mother, Lizzie Mai (Gooch) Ray, was a housewife. She had three half-siblings.

While attending Cameron High School in the early 1960s, she began dating a football team half-back named Harry Duff. They married in 1965 and had three children: Mrs. Carter, Seneca and Harry Duff Jr.

Ms. Duff had a long-standing passion for driving, according to her husband, who often occupied the passenger seat on family outings. She was a driver for a Chevrolet dealership in Nashville in the early 1970s. In 1974, a decade after the first black men were hired to drive city buses, she learned that the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority was opening the job to women. Ms. Duff broke the news that year when she was hired.

“My dad called us outside, told us to come home because our mom was on TV,” her daughter recalls. “We were so excited. Back then, I didn’t really think we knew what was going on, what was going on like that.

Sharing a locker room with the men (a women’s bathroom was added), Ms Duff “just mixed in like everyone else,” former driver Thomas J. Caruthers Sr. said. ‘one of the boys. (Mr. Caruthers, hired in 1966, was one of the first black bus drivers in Nashville.)

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Mrs. Duff created a sort of road dynasty of the Duff family: she inspired her three children to enter the profession. Seneca Duff followed in his footsteps and for a time Ms. Carter drove a school bus and Harry Jr. drove a trailer truck.

Along with her children, she is survived by her husband, 16 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

Ms. Duff retired in 2007 and became the financial secretary for the retirees section of her union, Local 1235 of the Amalgamated Transportation Union.

After being named Urban Driver of the Year by the Tennessee Public Transportation Association in 2004, she described what drew her to driving. “I love to hear the sound of it,” she told Tennessean. “When you really drive, you feel the vehicle itself. You listen to the engine. You feel the road.

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