Thank You, Stranger

Thank You, Stranger: How a bus driver and passenger helped a St. Paul woman get a fresh start

Child sitting in lap of older person smiling
Jesse with Denise's son, Jeffrey.
Photos courtesy of Denise Godderz

Sometimes, strangers help change our outlook on life, help us grow, or renew our faith in humanity.

The Minnesota Now team is kicking off a new series called Thank You, Stranger. It explores everyday acts of kindness or courage that had a strong effect on Minnesotans all over the state.

Denise moved around a lot as a child. She had a difficult relationship with her family and ended up setting out on her own as a teenager in Chicago.

There, she had a son, Jeffrey, and soon had to move again due to safety issues. Follow her story on the bus in St. Paul as she meets strangers who help her pursue her education and care for her child along the way.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.   

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Let me ask you something. Has someone ever taken you by surprise by doing something kind that made your day a little easier, maybe your life a little fuller? We have a new series, Thank You, Stranger. It looks at those special people and their impact. First up, a tribute to strangers on the bus from a woman who has spent many hours on the road. MPR producer Ellen Finn talked with her.


ELLEN FINN: Denise moved around a lot as a child. She had a difficult relationship with her family and ended up setting out on her own as a teenager in Chicago. There she had a son, Jeffrey and soon had to move again due to safety issues.

DENISE: On March 15, '81 I took my son Jeffrey, a grocery bag full of his clothes, pretended I was going to the laundromat. I got on a Greyhound bus. I remember standing in that bus station. The three next buses leaving were to San Francisco, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. And Minneapolis was the only place I had any familiarity with.

So I got on the bus, and after I paid my ticket, I only had $16. I didn't know what I was going to do. Made it up here. God, after several months, ended up getting an apartment. Got my GED. Finally got into subsidized housing at Sherman Forbes there on Grand and 7 and started going to Lakewood.

ELLEN FINN: Lakewood State Junior College was the only community college Denise could find on a bus line from her apartment in Saint Paul. It's now called Century College. It was her chance to build a new life in Saint Paul, but first, Denise had to get her son, Jeffrey to daycare.

DENISE: It was such an ordeal every day. So to get on that bus, and it's always the same bus driver. And he was just always so nice and friendly.


Then one day, the bus driver said, you know, Denise, I know you're going to Lakewood. Why do you always get off the bus here? And I said, well, you know, I have to walk up a block and drop my son off at daycare and then wait for the next bus.

And the next day, he didn't say a word. He pulled up right in front of the daycare and said, you run him in. I'll wait. That was just so gracious and kind. He did that for months until somebody complained, and he had to stop. And I understand them complaining, and I'm sure it was an inconvenience to them, but he was genuinely filled with sorrow when he told me he couldn't do it anymore.

Jeffrey and I would usually get in the front row. There right behind the disabled section. And the bus driver would just chat with me. And then one day he introduced me to Jesse. And Jesse, oh, he must have been mid 80s, he was such a sweet man. He started looking forward to seeing me and Jeffrey, I think Jeffrey more, actually.

And he started bringing him just little trinkets that he'd buy from Walgreens. We were kind of like our own little club the bus driver, Jesse, and me. Jesse was worried about me oversleeping because I was young. So he said, can I have your phone number, so I can call you and make sure you're awake. So, of course, I said yes, and I gave him my number. And he started calling me every single morning to wake me up.

Now, I rarely, rarely overslept. I still don't oversleep, but it was just so sweet. And it made him feel so important to do. So every morning, Jesse would greet me on the bus with a big smile and talk to Jeffrey. And I had him over for Easter one year. And he was just so-- he was just such a great guy.

And then like a week went by and Jesse hadn't called me, and he hadn't been on the bus. And all the regulars were talking about it. But I called the police to do a welfare check, and the cop called me back a few hours later and said, I'm really sorry to tell you but Jesse died. And I said, oh, no, what happened? And he said, he was on the bus and he had a heart attack.


So Jesse, this is what he did all day, in like that maybe year of knowing Jesse, he would ride the bus all day long. And he had his little route and what bus he'd take. He was very regular about it. And so I he had a friend on that bus when he died. I just he did.

ELLEN FINN: Why do you think you remember that story so well, Denise?

DENISE: I think a lot of it has to do because of my experiences in Chicago, I was pretty mistrustful of men. And just the bus driver, I wish I could remember his name, and Jesse just stood out as the first man that I felt really safe with. And I also think because of those two, I really make an effort to be kind to other people, just even in small ways.

You can kind of tell when somebody's having a bad day. And sometimes, just a smile or, hey, how are you or whatever? Just so they feel seen. I think it's really important.

ELLEN FINN: Yeah, I agree. Hey, one last question for you. If you were to talk, let's just say, to that bus driver now, if you were to run into him somehow, if he was still around, what would you say to him?

DENISE: I would just say, you have no clue how much you helped me. It was so cold. And I would wait out there in the cold. And just that little thing saved me a half an hour every day.

ELLEN FINN: And what would you say to your friend on the bus?

DENISE: Well, Jesse--


DENISE: I would just tell him I really loved him, and he was so important to me and Jeffrey.


CATHY WURZER: It was Denise who does not want us to use her last name in our first episode of Thank You, Stranger a series about people helping people in unexpected ways. To see a picture of Denise, her son Jeffrey, and their friend Jesse go to our website And if you've got a story about someone unexpectedly helping you out, let us know. You can email us at That story, by the way, was produced by Ellen Finn, Alana Elder, and Melissa Townsend. Music is by St Paul's Dan Luke.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.