By MIKAYLA ORTEGA
The Northern Rio Grande Driving School has been operating in the northern New Mexico communities for over two decades. Marshall Bailon and Gordon Robinson first started the local, private business in the summer of 1999, with the goal to offer students the chance to take drivers education using a handed down white Dodge Aries, circa 1983.
Vilma Bailon got involved in the business in 2001, helping her husband Marshall with the growth and development of the family business. Starting in Questa, the program has gone through several iterations and changes, currently operating under the AAA How to Drive curriculum.
Initially, the Northern New Mexico Driving School started its operations to serve the Questa community, but has since expanded to Taos, serving students from Penasco, Taos, Alcalde, Costilla, Amalia, and even as far as Albuquerque. “I think we’ve taught millennials throughout the county how to drive,” Vilma says as she laughs.
Classes typically have 30 to 40 students per class. Students are required to complete 30 hours of classroom time in a two-week timeframe and 7 hours of driving time with parents to pass the class. Students then go through a one-and-a-half year process of supervised driving hours in order to obtain their full unrestricted driver’s license.
Vilma found herself navigating unfamiliar territory when her business partner and life partner passed away unexpectedly in 2020. “Marshall started this business with Gordon, and we have had so many people involved in helping us along the way, including Diane Padilla and Beverly Rivera. When he died, I was so overwhelmed and unsure if I should keep going.” Vilma recalls.
Marshall passed away just weeks before the COVID pandemic hit, leaving Vilma to figure out how to keep the business going during a time of social distancing and quarantining. “One day, I got a call from the Duke City Driving School and they offered to help me transition our classes to remote teaching, taking me under their business name to ensure I could continue.
I am so grateful to Lisa and Jose Hurtado who helped me when I really needed them,” she says.
After getting through the COVID pandemic, Vilma was starting to feel overwhelmed, carrying the heavy workload alone. One day, she was put in touch with an instructor in Katy, Texas, who was interested in relocating to northern New Mexico. “That’s how I got David Montes to work with me and he’s my other instructor now,” she says.
These situations are clear indications to Vilma that her late husband is still watching over her to this day. “I know Marshall would want me to keep going with the business he built and I continue to pray to God to help me. I also ask Marshall to help me, I tell him I still need your help and I know he hears me,” she says.
As for what she likes most about her job, Vilma says the kids keep her young. “I love the kids, and it’s so awesome when we’re able to see them later in life doing amazing things. I have taught doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, even kids who now work for NASA,” she says proudly.
Vilma recalls a funny situation a few weeks ago when a state police officer pulled up behind her at the gas station. “It was obvious he was pulling up to talk to me and I thought, ‘I didn’t do it.’ He got out of his police car and said, ‘don’t worry Mrs. Bailon. You taught me in drivers ed 5 years ago, I just wanted to say hi.’ That meant so much to me.”
When asked how long she anticipates continuing the business she built with her husband, “I am going to keep going for as long as I can because I am carrying on Marshall’s legacy. It was his passion and we loved doing this together. I call it Driving Miss Daisy when I am out driving with the kids, helping them get their hours. I love working with the kids and I feel so fulfilled seeing where they go later in life, so the answer is, I am going to keep Driving Miss Daisy for as long as I possibly can,” she says.
To register for driving school in either Questa or Taos, you can call Vilma at (575) 770-7253. You can also reach her at the Taos Youth and Family Center. The class costs $400 per student and in order to register, students need an original birth certificate, original SSN card.