The fact that he saved a busful of lives one morning last spring may have had something to do with it, but more likely than not, it was bus driver Charles E. Ballinger's pleasent demeanor that endeared him to his Springfield riders.

When he was transferred to a new route in June, his former passengers wrote Metro officials, praising Ballenger for everything from his expertise to his cheerful attitude.

"As disgruntled as some of us are about forthcoming bus and rail increases . . . we would publicly like to thank both Metro and our (unfortunately former) driver Charles E. Ballenger for the months of dependability, cheerfulness, courteousness and expert driving that Mr. Ballenger has provided us," reads the letter signed by 13 passengers.

The snowy-haired driver breaks into an embarrassed grin when told of his riders' devotion.

"Schucks, those were real nice people out there (in Springfield)," says Ballenger. "That's one of the most popular routes -- for everyone -- no one could get on that bus and stay grumpy.

"He knew where everyone got on and got off, and he'd wait an extra half-minute for someone -- without ever running behind schedule. If someone fell asleep, he'd wake them up and make sure they got off at their stop."

Ballenger has been guiding buses through Northern Virginia since 1963, when he signed on with the now defunct ABW (Alexandria, Barcroft and Washington) line.

"I figured at the time, I had 32 years to give," says Ballenger. "Done 17 of 'em; hoping now it won't go all the way to 32."

While he says the scenery has changed -- highways and houses were there once was nothing but Virginia farmland -- Ballenger says one thing has remained constant -- his philosophy about life.

"When most people board a bus, the image they get of the driver is what they think of the company as a whole," says Ballenger between leisurely puffs on his pipe. "I've always believed you should treat people the way you know you'd like to be treated yourself."

What makes a driver popular? Ballenger thinks for a minute and replies, "Someone who rides a schedule. That's what they like.

"There's no need for a driver to be late -- one minute either way isn't going to make a difference, but you get there late and people don't like it."

"You have to adhere to a schedule," Ballenger says, as if talking to a rookie bus driver searching for one pearl of wisdom.

"You could count on him, and that's more than you can say for Metro drivers," says Weber.

Beyond the business of being promt and pleasant, the passengers on the 17K line appreciated Ballenger's skillful avoidance of a near-tragic accident on I-95.

According to witnesses, a car in the bus express lane went out of control, hit the median and flipped over three or four times. Ballenger stopped his bus in time to avoid a crash, and then called the police.

"We missed being hit by that car only because our driver was alert," says Weber. "After he stopped the bus a few feet short of the accident, he proceeded to run the entire rescue operation."

Ballenger, a 49-year-old bachelor, says after a tense week of driving through traffic jams and narrowly avoiding collisions, he needs to get away. Often he escapes to Leesburg, where he grew up.

"I just love it there, but it isn't the same -- you'd harldy recognize it," Ballenger says, recalling the days when the sleepy town seemed far from Washington. "Mark my words: it'll be one big city, from Tysons Corner to Leesburg, before you know it.

"I hate to see it, myself."

In the meantime, Ballenger says he will keep "checking the board" to see if the 17K route comes up vacant. And the Springfield passengers say they keep looking for his familiar face when they hop on the bus in the mornings.

"We sure hated to see him go," says Weber.