Thanks to Scruggs, good vibes fuel MATC shuttle van

Every ride a happy ride with retired city employee at the wheel

Mark Feldmann,

November 09, 2022

Joe Scruggs

MILWAUKEE – When Joe Scruggs is at the wheel, the Milwaukee Area Technical College shuttle van is a groovy, happy place — a safe space full of peace, love and understanding, and devoid of hate, disrespect or bad vibes.

For the past five years, Scruggs has steered the shuttle van around MATC’s Downtown Milwaukee Campus, picking up and dropping off students, faculty and staff, getting them to and from campus buildings and parking structures.

And the 73-year-old retired City of Milwaukee employee completes each and every shift with a smile on his face, a kind word on his lips and abundant happiness in his heart for all his valued passengers.

“I love people, I love helping people,” said Scruggs on a crisp October morning while making his appointed rounds. “A warm smile and a kind word paint a beautiful picture. It doesn't cost me anything to say good morning to someone. You can come on and be a grump, but I won’t be. I’m going to be Joe, because that’s all I can be.”

For many, Joe being Joe is just fine. He recently won an MATC WE CARE award for delivering exemplary customer service to students, employees, and visitors.

“Joe will share a page of his life story if it will help brighten your outlook for the day,” said Cliff Watson, facilities maintenance manager at MATC and Scuggs’ supervisor. “Joe always is complimentary to staff and students. He helps motivate anyone who seems down or distracted. He provides a welcoming environment each day.”

Making his rounds

While driving the van, Scuggs plays all kinds of music, from swinging Motown to thumping Iron Butterfly. He chats amiably with passengers and waves to people he recognizes walking past. He says good morning and have a nice day to everyone. “Some people won’t say the first thing, but when someone starts it, the bad mood can melt away,” he said. “They know someone cares.”

Learn about MATC Campus Shuttle

“You can’t be in a bad mood on Joe’s shuttle,” said one passenger, a female MATC student heading to The Brewery parking structure. “Even if you’re on here for just a few minutes, those are happy minutes.” 

While idling or waiting, Scruggs is never idle. He keeps a pencil and pad of paper on the van and writes down his thoughts, feelings, meditations and advice. About 20 years ago he attended a creative writing class at MATC and got an A. About 10 years ago he discovered Facebook and started to share his musings on life.

“I love writing, I love reading,” he said. 

A few of his Facebook posts:

How we live our life has effect on others around us. People and especially children watch you even when we don’t know it. 

Nothing worse than losing someone because they didn’t think they had anyone to talk to, so … . Even in my own struggles. Phone is always on, door is always open and a drink can easily be poured. Doing a real friend check. Support each other. 

Growing up in the city

Joseph Lee Scruggs was born in St. Louis, one of 12 children of Abe Scruggs and Willie Mae Harris-Scruggs. The family moved to Milwaukee in 1955, when Scruggs was 5 years old. 

The family lived all around the city. In winter, he sledded on a hill on Highland Avenue that ran from the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church to where MATC’s C Building now stands. In spring he played in the old Red Arrow Park. In summer, he shined shoes on Wisconsin Avenue, and in autumn he shopped at a farmers market on Winnebago Street.

All year-round he had family all around. Scruggs counted 101 first cousins in the city: His mother was one of 15 children, his father one of seven. “I didn’t have other friends, we didn’t have room,” he said. “We were a tight-knit group, like brothers and sisters.”

The family all went to Westside Church of God In Christ, a small but mighty congregation that spawned four pastors, including Darrell Hines, who later led the Christian Faith Fellowship Church on Good Hope Road.

“We were a church-based family,” Scruggs said. “Westside back then was a shack with a potbellied stove for heat. But it was vibrant and we learned and listened. None of my siblings ever spent a single day in jail.”

Scruggs graduated from Milwaukee Lincoln High School in 1967, took a job with the city mowing grass and cutting weeds in 1968, and was drafted into the Army in 1969. He was stationed at Fort Sam Houston and received orders for Vietnam. He never got there, but spent 18 months in Germany.

He returned to Milwaukee and went back to work for the city, first as a maintenance mechanic, then as a security guard at the city’s various housing projects. He worked for the city until he retired. Along the way he got married twice and raised five children, all of them educated and successful. 

“I have been blessed,” Scruggs said. “I have worked hard, but I have enjoyed life. Now my life is focused on the spiritual side. I’m focused on trying to make people happier and making sure I give people and MATC my very best every day. I love doing that.”

About MATC: Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 25,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 170 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.