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What Happened to Bart, the Man Who Taught 17,000 Minneapolitans to Drive?

Pre-pandemic, Bart's Suburban Driving School vanished after 35 years.

Jay Boller; Facebook|

Bart hovering above the former DQ-adjacent Bart’s Suburban Driving School.

If you grew up in south Minneapolis, odds are you learned to drive inside a strange little house next to a Dairy Queen. VHS-recorded Simpsons episodes were on the syllabus, right next to 90-degree back turns and parallel parking.

From 1984 to 2019, Jeff "Bart" Bartels reigned as the Southside driver's ed king, having trained an estimated 17,000 teens who'd become the licensed drivers you share the road with today. Graduating from Bart's Suburban Driving School was a right of passage. But, four years ago, the kooky classroom at 6020 Portland Ave. closed for good.

“I’m diabetic, and in 2019 I lost my right leg," says Bartels, 69, a Richfield native who now lives in Bloomington. "I just couldn’t recover from that and keep the business going, so we wound up closing.”

In terms of enrollment, the last decade at BSDS was slow, Bartels reports, something of a full-circle bookend for the business.

“It was a struggle when we opened in '84, then we got almost overwhelmed by how many students came," he says. "I should have been happy all that time, but you feel like you’re overworked or whatever.”

Graduates of Bart's Suburban Driving School include the children of several mayors (we can confirm Charlie Rybak is one) and the offspring of Minnesota Renaissance Festival faves Puke & Snot. Most students, regionally notable or otherwise, remember the laid-back vibes inside that bungalow from 1920. "Because it was an old house, it felt homey, ya know?" Bartels says.

During breaks, the TV programming would shift from driver's ed standbys like Red Asphalt to something less gruesome. With the exception of Itchy & Scratchy. “I just enjoyed The Simpsons myself, and I thought—with Homer being such a dumb dad—the kids could relate to that somehow, ya know?” he says of the home-recorded cartoon screenings. Proximity to the metro's second-best DQ was another perk.

"One day at Bart’s there were only three of us in class and someone from DQ came over to drop supplies off in the basement, and Bart said, 'Why don’t you bring us some cones?'” BSDS graduate Brady O'Brien remembers. "And the DQ employee nodded and then came back with four vanilla cones."

Bartels suspects video games and smartphones might have something to do with declining interest in driving among young people, a decades-long trend that, as this Atlantic piece explores, is tricky to attribute to any single factor. Gone, it seems, are the once-relatable days of Cher from Clueless melting down over driver's test anxiety. During those final years, Bart's Suburban Driving School purchased virtual driving simulators to help students ID... the very, very basics.

“I got those because I was finding, when I got in the car with students, I’d say ‘Put your foot on the brake,’ and they’re like: ‘Which one is the brake?’" Bartels says with a laugh. "It was kind of scary."

Bartels is retired "for now." He's undergoing hyperbaric chamber treatment to keep his left leg, and has trained himself to drive with his remaining foot. A buddy at Bloomington's Streetwise Driving Academy even has a job lined up for Bartels when he's ready to resume educating the Twin Cities drivers of tomorrow.

Maybe that's why he's not particularly reflective today. When asked about his legacy as the Southside's educational wheelman, Bartels says it summons just one feeling.

"I'm old!"

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