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​Making the grade: 87-year-old P.E.I. man still working full time

An 87-year-old grader operator from P.E.I. is working full time on the Charlottetown airport runway expansion. But Roland Bushey says this will be his last year on the job.

Roland Bushey says his work on Charlottetown airport runway extension will be his last project

'I never hardly missed a day': 87 year-old P.E.I. man still working full time 0:57

Eighty-seven-year-old Roland Bushey from Souris, P.E.I. says he's taking this last year before retiring a bit easier — he's cutting his 12-hour shift by half an hour.

Bushey's day is even longer when you add on his 78km drive to and from the Charlottetown airport, where he's working on the runway expansion. 

"I get up at four in the morning and I get home at seven in the evening." 

Grading has always been in the family. Bushey's long career began 62 years ago.

"My dad was a grader operator. Dad took me for a couple of days on the grader. I liked it."

Roland Bushey's regular 12-hour shift is a little shorter as he winds up his career this year. 'Start at 6:30 in the morning, work until 6. It's 11 and a half hours here now.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

For the first couple of years Bushey levelled soil, but he soon graduated to grading gravel, which has to be perfectly level before paving. 

"It's challenging. You gotta have the elevation and you've gotta follow your grade stakes."

'He's very adaptable'

 Bushey has worked for the last half-century with the same company, Chapman Brothers. 

"He's very adaptable. Loves new things, new challenges," said project manager Craig Chapman.

In fact because of this quality, Chapman asked Bushey to try one of the brand new graders.   

'Roland means a lot to our family,' says Craig Chapman. 'He comes to work every day with a smile. He's kind of the last of the true gentlemen.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

The old grader that Bushey had used for the last 20-25 years had separate hydraulic controls for each function and a steering wheel.

This new machine — the fourth-generation of the grader Bushey has operated in his long career, has no steering wheel and uses two joysticks similar to a video game.

'Pretty amazing for someone who's 87'

Bushey caught on to the new machine quickly.

"Within 15 minutes, he had mastered the controls which is pretty amazing for someone who's 87," said Chapman.

And Bushey seemed pleased with his new machine.

"The old way was all levers, it was pretty hard on the hands. You had to push back and forth," he said.

Bushey didn't have GPS back then to guide him.

"It was just all done by eye. Now you just set your blade to whatever grade you want. The machine does the rest," he said.

87-year-old Roland Bushey grades the gravel on the airport runway expansion project in Charlottetown. He's retiring after 62 years of operating graders. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"I'm getting used to the new way. Now it's all modernized. You just punch in and it tells you what the grader's doing."

'This is the best project'

Bushey's career as a grader operator has come full circle. 

He began his career at an airport in the 50s — helping to build the runway at the former air base in Summerside — and is ending it this summer at an airport. 

"This is the best project. This gotta be exact. The airplanes coming in," he said. 

Roland Bushey started his career off levelling soil, and then a few years later, advanced to fine grading of gravel. 'This gotta be exact. The airplanes coming in.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

 Bushey is in good health for an 87-year-old, with no aches and pains at the end of a long day.

 He also has good eyesight.

"My vision is pretty good. This is my first job wearing glasses."

Bushey's wife passed away 29 years ago. Over the last few years, his grown children have urged him to retire.  

"They want me to quit. They want me to take it easy."

'The last of the true gentlemen'

Bushey is not sure what he'll do to fill his time. 

"I like doing it. I like my work. I like to see the job done for the company." 

Roland Bushey's work won't end when he's finished levelling the gravel on the runway. 'When the fine grading is done, I'll be over on the slopes, getting ready to seed grass.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

Meanwhile, Chapman hopes this won't be Bushey's last year.

"Roland means a lot to our family," said Chapman.    

"He comes to work every day with a smile. He's kind of the last of the true gentlemen."

About the Author

Pat Martel

Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning — from a writer-broadcaster to a producer. This year, Pat joined the web team with an eye to create great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He always welcomes great story ideas that are visually appealing. pat.martel@cbc.ca