'We would be lost without him,' says school principal of East Falls crossing guard
Last month, NewsWorks asked readers to nominate their favorite crossing guards in Northwest Philadelphia. We received six submissions from the public and got clearance to cover five of the nominees (one person did not return our call). These crossing guard stories will run from Dec. 31 through the first week of January.
When Larry Abney stopped working as a press operator at the Budd Co. plant nearly a decade ago, he quickly learned one important thing about retirement: It's boring.
So, the 60-year-old Northwest Philadelphian decided to do what he noticed a former co-worker doing at intersection a year or so later: He applied to become a city crossing guard.
Abney's application was accepted and, after completing training, he was assigned to the crosswalk leading across Midvale Avenue to the East Falls building formerly know as Saint Bridget School in 2004.
He wouldn't be there long.
After six months on the post, Abney's peer a quarter mile up the hill was venturing off into a retirement of her own. He then successfully requested a transfer to the intersection of Midvale Avenue, Conrad Street and Warden Drive.
"I didn't know how busy it was up here until then," he recounted between trips into the middle of a busy morning-rush street with a stop sign in his hand, a cap on his head, a bright vest on his chest and a wide smile on his face.
The Thomas Mifflin School crossing guard has become the type of neighborhood mainstay and protector of children from often-distracted, speeding drivers.
When NewsWorks' set out to find Northwest Philly's favorite crossing guards, the first nomination was for Mr. Larry. So was the second. There would be more, too.
School principal Leslie Mason summed up parent, and community, sentiment in her nomination.
"He will stay late rather than let a child wait alone for a bus or a parent," she wrote. "He cares very much for every child and will contact the school immediately if he senses a problem.
"He is a valued member of our school community and we would be lost without him. He never misses a day!"
A "pretty dangerous" corner
Watching Abney work, one gets the sense of a protective grandfather, a role he was prepared to fill thanks to nine grandchildren from his four kids.
He works at a truly busy intersection, with Henry Ave. commuters zipping down Warden and Midvale, sometimes with reckless abandon.
"When I started here, they didn't want to stop for you to cross the kids," Abney said. "If you have to be at work at 8, why do you leave at 5 of?"
Drivers not wanting to stop are less of a problem today. People with one hand on the steering wheel and another (with their eyes) on their mobile phone are.
"One time, a lady pulled up and I noticed she was trying to feed her child cereal. The child was in the back seat," he said. "You have to take the bitter with the sweet. There have been quite a few close calls. They just have to play closer attention."
But, Abney's smiling, waving, interactive presence serves to positively distract those distracted drivers. No children have been struck on his watch.
What they're saying about Mr. Larry
Respect and appreciation are the common threads in the words of parents and passersby who sometimes try in vain to have Abney defy the rules about accepting gifts like coffee or hot chocolate. ("No coffee, no chewing gum out on the corner," he explained.)
"A smile and a wave everyday, and always concerned about the students' safety," said Tracy McDonald, whose son used to attend Saint Bridget's but now goes to Mifflin. "I used to drive by in a yellow truck and he'd always wave in the morning. When we got a new car, I guess he didn't recognize it instantly so when I waved, he didn't notice me. That was sad."
Samuel Morgan saw Abney though another lens: A crossing guard who offers words of encouragement to a single father.
"He's amazing. He really cares for the children," he said. On the days he can't walk his son a block or two to school, "I know he's there, so I know my son will be safe."
For his part, Roger Hill, a parent of three Mifflin students who volunteers at the school, noted that both "Mr. Larry and Miss Barbara," who crosses children two blocks away at Conrad and West Queen Lane, "are both great people."
Even people who sometimes have to wait a few extra seconds on their commute hold Abney in high regard.
"He's the best. Stopping cars, keeping the children safe. He always smiles. The children respect him. I respect him. That's what it's all about," said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.
Ayers drove past the intersection just a few minutes after the former First Lady of Pennsylvania and current U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Midge Rendell had to wait for children to cross while being told to "Keep it moving, and have a good day!"
Because of Abney, students, parents, neighbors and commuters do.