It was a few days before Christmas and Paul Goetchius looked like a dad picking up his daughter from college — greeting the smiling young woman outside the dorm, tossing her backpack into his SUV, then easing out from the line of parked cars onto the snow-covered interstate.
The next day, he did the same thing at a different college — and he did it again the next day, and the next day, and the next. By the time the holiday arrived, he’d put more than 1,000 miles on his bronze Chevy Tahoe, just bringing kids home from college.
They weren’t even his kids.
In the past eight years, Goetchius, 76, a retired environmental toxicologist from Syracuse, N.Y., has logged a jaw-dropping 64,368 miles driving low-income college students to and from universities all around his state for holidays, spring break, summer break and more.
That’s equivalent to driving around the globe about two and a half times.
He’ll drive pretty much anywhere in New York. He often takes students to and from the University at Buffalo (a five-hour round trip, unless there’s snow) or the Rochester Institute of Technology (also five hours), and has even delivered them to and from State University of New York at Plattsburgh, up near Lake Champlain (an eight-hour round trip). The only place in the state the former farm boy won’t drive is New York City — too much traffic.
Goetchius makes each trip in a single day, often on back-to-back days to make sure everyone gets home in time for a holiday or back to campus in time for the start of the next semester. He makes stops at Dunkin’ Donuts or Burger King for breakfast or lunch, always his treat.
He keeps a printout of the restaurants along his routes on a clipboard so the students can pick where they want to eat.
The first student Goetchius ever drove to college, other than his own kids — he and his wife have three grown children, plus five grandchildren — was a young woman studying nursing at the University at Buffalo in 2010.
He had seen an article in the local paper about On Point for College, a grassroots nonprofit in Syracuse that helps disadvantaged kids get to college.
“It said they were looking for volunteer drivers,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, heck, I can drive a car.’ ”
He so enjoyed their conversation during the three-hour ride that he decided to sign up again. Eight years later, he’s still at it.
“There are programs for everything, and I’m not really a program man,” he said. “But I like to drive, and it’s such a blessing and a privilege to be a part of these kids’ lives, even just for a few hours, getting to know them and hearing their stories.”
Sometimes the students need rides because their family doesn’t have a car or because their family’s car is unreliable. Sometimes they need a ride because their mom works six days a week cleaning hotel rooms or at a nursing home, and she needs the family’s lone car to get to her job. Sometimes the students have no home.
“I’ve given rides to college to kids who were living at the homeless shelter or on a relative’s couch,” Goetchius says.
Goetchius spends about $1,000 a year on gas but insists that he comes out ahead in the long run because he has so much fun building relationships with the students and learning about their lives.
“Some of these kids are incredible, what they overcome to get to college.”
The Washington Post’s Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.