Rudy Gunter will spend this weekend like he has countless others in late February, at the Casper Events Center watching the Wyoming State High School Wrestling Championships. There, the 73-year-old Gunter will reunite with old friends and cheer for his hometown team – the Green River Wolves.

When the tournament finishes Saturday night, Gunter will drive the Wolves wrestlers and coaches back home one last time.

“I’ve been doing this since 1963,” Gunter said last week at the Class 4A West Regional wrestling tournament in Casper. “I’m going to miss the kids and the coaches, but it’s time to step down.”

Gunter’s influence extends throughout the state. That tends to happen when someone devotes a life to education and coaching. In addition to his career as an art teacher and a bus driver for the high school, Gunter also served as Green River’s boys basketball coach for a number of years beginning in 1975.

The decision to pick the steering wheel over the coach's box was made for him, but it's one that people around the state appreciate.

“My kids had to make a decision as to whether they wanted to wrestle or play basketball when they got to high school,” Gunter said. “They decided to wrestle, and I was on the road all the time coaching basketball, so I decided to give up coaching so I could watch them.”

After that, the Wolves didn't need another driver. Tom Seamans, now coaching in Gillette, was Green River's head coach from 1987-2000.

“Rudy drove every one of our trips while I was there,” Seamans said. “He was more than our driver. He was the driver, the cheerleading sponsor and sometimes I’d use him as an assistant coach if we had three or four guys going at the same time.

“But more than driving, what I respected Rudy most for was his love of the town of Green River and his commitment to the high school. Now that I’m coaching Gillette, I know exactly who he’s rooting for, and that’s Green River. But I also know that I’ve got a dear friend in Rudy. He’s always going to put Green River first.

“He’s kind of a hometown hero in Green River.”

Larry Meeboer, Natrona County High School director of activities/athletics, played for Gunter at Green River.

“Rudy is one of my role models; he definitely had an influence on me," Meeboer said. “I always felt like he went above and beyond what was asked of him. He did what he did because he loved the kids; it wasn’t just a pay check to him.”

Added Tom Wilson, Green River activities/athletics director: "I don't think Rudy realizes how much he means to this school and to this community. ... Rudy Gunter is one of the main reasons I got into education."

Seamans recalled a 1989 trip to Idaho when Gunter’s experience as a bus driver kept the team on the road. Blizzard conditions sent, by the team's count, 40 cars into the ditch between Blackfoot and Idaho Falls. When the Wolves finally arrived, the tournament had already been cancelled.

“We ate lunch and they had closed the roads by then, so we had to circle around and go back through Utah," Seamans said. "None of it bothered Rudy.”

Gunter admitted that driving on snow-packed, wind-blown roads was something he got used to over the years. One trip in particular, though, stands out in his mind.

“One time we came from a tournament in Riverton,” he said. “We were coming over [South Pass], and I had my son standing in the door well so that he could see the side of the road. I was driving by looking out the side of the bus.”

Fifty-one years and tens of thousands of miles after he first got behind the steering wheel of a bus, Gunter has no regrets. He won’t miss driving in the snow and the meager pay checks, but that’s not why Gunter took the job in the first place.

“I just love being around the kids … you become a part of their lives,” Gunter said. “It’s awesome to be a driver, but you’re not going to get rich doing it. I’ve got the most valuable cargo in the world, and the most responsibility in the world, but I’m only making $20 an hour.

“But I’m still going to miss it.”

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Contact sports reporter Jack Nowlin at 307-266-0528 or jack.nowlin@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @CASJackN