Three decades ago, a California resident could walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles and, for the sum of $3.25, leave with a brand-new driver’s license issued to any name of their choosing.
Not only has the price for a CDL increased in the past 30 years to its current $31, but the DMV can now only issue an ID or license with a person’s legal name on it.
In other words – and because of more stringent policy in response to identity theft, national security and illegal immigration concerns – there are far fewer “Santa Clauses” motoring around the Golden State than there were even 10 years ago.
“We used to have thousands of Santa Clauses,” said Katie Bandhauer-Poole, current relief manager for the DMV’s Bishop office and, come Sept. 30, the area’s most newly retired state worker.
“And of course, there was Jackass Andy from Death Valley … though I think he did eventually get his name legally changed to that,” she continued. “Years ago you used to be able to come in and say, ‘I got married, I want to change my license’ – or ‘I got divorced,’ whatever – but now you need to show copies of the marriage license and other certified documents.”
Having spent the past 33 years working her way through every job at the Bishop DMV – at the counter filing vehicle registration renewals, riding shotgun on driver’s exams, bringing DMV services to outlying Eastern Sierra communities and eventually helping to run the office – Bandhauer-Poole is intimately familiar with changing transportation laws as well as those local names and faces caught up in the red tape and realities of violated regulations.
Bandhauer-Poole admitted to crying on more than one occasion when forced to revoke a driver’s license – an act coming with life- and certainly lifestyle-changing ramifications.
At those times, she’s regretted the “small-town,” rural setting of the Eastern Sierra that’s allowed her to get to know, and care for, so many DMV customers.
“One guy, who’s been passed away a long time now, accused me of taking his license away because I never liked him when I was a kid,” Bandhauer-Poole said.
A Bishop-born, Independence-bred Owens Valley native, there haven’t been too many DMV customers over the years that Bandhauer-Poole can sincerely call strangers.
And for the most part, she said, knowing the people she’s serving has been a privilege that’s helped to keep her motivated.
Over the past three-plus decades, Bandhauer-Poole has herself become quite the familiar face – and voice – to generations of residents.
“She’s one of a kind,” said Mercy White, Bishop DMV office manager. “It’s that laugh that everybody recognizes, and the short, flaming red hair.”
According to White, Bandhauer-Poole is what could easily be considered a local treasure – not just for her unique personality but also for her rare longevity in a stressful field.
That tenure, White explained, has not only bore witness to countless additions and changes to Inyo County’s historical record, but it is especially unique because her time has been spent in a single DMV office.
“It’s unusual to stay in one office,” Bandhauer-Poole conceded, “but I’d have had to leave the area if I wanted to promote.”
And leaving the area would have meant leaving behind coworkers she adored and a community she loved.
By and large, that love is mutual.
Just this past August, the parents of five children whom Bandhauer-Poole had administered driver’s tests to called her to make sure she could do the same for their sixth child.
What’s remarkable about the incident is that they called Bandhauer-Poole at home, on what was supposed to be her day off, and she drove in to work anyway to administer the test – realizing, she explained, what an important rite of passage that exam is for teenagers and their parents.
“The family just wanted to make sure their kids all had tests with the same examiner,” she said.
The beloved figure Bandhauer-Poole is to so many is a far cry from the shy, unsure young woman hired on as part-time help in May 1977.
She was immediately put to work as a motor vehicles representative, processing driver’s licenses and vehicle registration.
Lois Casthenetto, her supervisor, was responsible for what Bandhauer-Poole described as rigorous, on-the-job training.
“She used to tell me I couldn’t go to the restroom or to lunch because I’d forget everything she taught me,” Bandhauer-Poole said, laughing. “One time, very early on, a guy yelled at me and made me cry, so I found Lois and I was bawling and I said, ‘This job’s too hard, people yell at you.’ She told me I needed to grow a backbone. Boy have times changed. If she could only see me now.”
Indeed, though Bandhauer-Poole is well-liked for her loud laugh, congenial smile and friendly demeanor, she’s also widely feared for her sharp-tongue and refusal to suffer fools.
“It’s never a dull moment with Katie,” confirmed White, now in her 12th year of what she originally intended to be a two-year gig at the Bishop office. “She has surprised me in many, many ways over the years. I came from a big office – very strict with a lot of guidelines. When I came here, I was shocked. I remember one time, there was a little old man in line with a stogie and Katie said something (shocking) to him and he said something to her and my jaw just dropped and Katie says, ‘Oh don’t worry, it’s just George.’ One time she started climbing over the counter to greet someone and I said, ‘You can’t do that here.’”
Eventually, the culture shock began to wear off and White grew more accustomed to Bandhauer-Poole’s informality and sense of humor. White’s transition was aided when she realized there was a method to Bandhauer-Poole’s madness.
“One time she told me, ‘I know the rule is you can’t work on friends or family, but if you don’t want to be the only one doing all the work, we have to make some exceptions,’” White said.
Bandhauer-Poole wasn’t a motor vehicle representative for long. She wasn’t fired and didn’t quit in a flood of tears as she at one time feared, but rather promoted to examiner – a position she held for 20 years.
She served as a commercial examiner concurrently for 13-14 years.
“Examiner is probably one of the best jobs I ever had,” Bandhauer-Poole said. “You get to be out there, one-on-one, with the customers.”
From there, Bandhauer-Poole was appointed a supervisor, which enabled to her to make travel runs on behalf of the DMV to its satellite offices in Bridgeport and Lone Pine.
“That was fun – traveling and seeing my Old Timers in Lone Pine,” she said. “We’d also go to Bridgeport for two days once a month and spend the night. I got to meet all sorts of people up there.”
Eventually, Bandhauer-Poole was promoted to relief manager – a job that entails filling in as supervisor in DMV offices around the state, including Lake Isabella, Taft and Coalinga.
Bandhauer-Poole said she likes the work because it allows her time to travel and meet new people, but it also means less interaction on that personal level she enjoys.
“Management I haven’t enjoyed as much as examiner, because I’m sort of in the back away from the people,” she said. “I’m not out where the action is. And each transaction is never the same as the one before it.”
Bandhauer-Poole acknowledged that that “excitement” is another reason she’s stayed with the DMV for so long.
A few years ago, Bandhauer-Poole had the opportunity to fill in at a Pittsburgh DMV conducting commercial exams, despite the fact she was completely unfamiliar with the city’s geography.
“My first drive was this big, burly guy with tattoos and I thought I was going to die,” she said, laughing. “So we get in the truck and I say, ‘Take a right up here.’ He says OK and I go, ‘Are you from here?’ and he says, ‘Yeah,’ and I say, ‘OK, good. Can you get us back to the office then?’ At one point, I told him he’s going to have to take a right turn ahead. He says, ‘No, I don’t think we are – that’s a one-way street.’ So I said, ‘Oh. Nevermind. Just get us back to the office.’”
Not all adventures happened on the road.
According to Bandhauer-Poole, she used to administer exams to drivers who were referred to the DMV by law enforcement – for issues such as poor eye sight, advanced age, unsafe driving habits. But, for fear she would let knowledge of their infraction influence her decision during the exam, Bandhauer-Poole never used to read the referrals until after the test.
“Then one time, as she’s driving, this lady tells me, ‘I didn’t see that bicyclist until he was going over the top of my roof,’” Bandhauer-Poole said, laughing. “I read all the referrals from then on.”
Aside from working one-on-one with literally thousands of residents and visitors over the past three decades, Bandhauer-Poole has helped the local DMV office transition to its current location on West Line Street from its old digs on Main in 2008, and implement increasing state mandates with fewer dollars and less hours on the work clock.
For all the laughter she induces and hijinks she has been a part of or inspired, Bandhauer-Poole is, above all, good at what she does, White said. “Katie’s able to do the job of maybe three people.”
The Bishop DMV Office currently has a staff of five full- and part-time employees, including Bandhauer-Poole, whose position will not be filled upon her retirement.
White said she plans to retire in the next few years herself, and fellow veteran DMV employee Vasie Tex isn’t far behind.
According to White, in many ways, Bandhauer-Poole’s departure signals the end of an era – the loss of a significant amount of institutional knowledge and shift towards a younger generation at the helm of the local DMV.
But for the foreseeable future, “it’s going to be very, very different here without Katie,” White said. “I’m sad to see her go. She’s touched many hearts – inside and outside the office.”
Bandhauer-Poole conceded that leaving won’t be easy.
It’s the people she’ll miss most, she said.
“After Gary (my second husband) passed away, I found out just how many people in this community cared and what a close-knit family we are. All these years, that made it so I never even wanted to leave,” Bandhauer-Poole said. “It’s the same with the girls here in the office, we’re all family basically.”
But it’s time for Bandhauer-Poole to move on.
“Pretty soon, if I stay any longer, I’ll be giving tests to the grandkids of people I went to school with,” she said, laughing.
Bandhauer-Poole has her own grandchildren – six here and two in Connecticut – she’s looking forward to spending more time with, along with her two children and four stepchildren.
She also plans to travel – after three decades, the wanderlust and spirit of adventure is in her blood.
“I also want to work with the public again in some way,” Bandhauer-Poole said. “I don’t think sitting home is my thing.”