Crossing into retirement: School says goodbye to beloved zone guard

On the final day of her crossing guard career, Mary Bannister only had to raise her hand-held stop sign a few times.

Well-wishers, parents and students were stopping on their own at Illinois and Brooks streets Friday afternoon to express their appreciation to a woman who has shepherded students through Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. crosswalks for 37 years.

“Enjoy your time off,” BCSC bus driver Pat Dailey called from the Bus 160 driver’s seat as she passed through the east side Columbus intersection near CSA Fodrea school, and followed it with, “Bye Mary, we love you!”

Bannister closed out her crossing guard career by bringing the treats that she usually distributes at Halloween to the students who walked across Brooks Street. She handed out chocolate bars and popcorn balls to the youngsters as they walked home from school, with the students lingering to take turns for one last hug.

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“We’re going to miss you,” Thomas Sebastian, 12, said to Bannister as he embraced her.

Lexy Hernandez, 12, who was walking home with her sister, Ally, 9, said it was sad that their crossing guard won’t be at the corner anymore.

“She’s just super nice, super sweet. She’s awesomeness,” Lexy Hernandez said.

That’s high praise for the 76-year-old, who admitted she wore sunglasses on Friday not just because it was sunny, but because she was afraid that tears might fill her eyes when she said goodbye to the students she always looks forward to seeing twice a day on school days.

It’s a tradition so familiar to families that some stop by in the car to let her know when a student is absent or not crossing on a particular day.

She’s one of several long-time crossing guards who have been honored by BCSC and the Columbus Police Department recently for lengthy careers as dedicated crossing guards, who go out each morning and afternoon no matter the weather or circumstances to make sure kids get across the street safely.

Bannister said she stayed with it through all the years because the city has been good to the crossing guards, who are as close-knit as any family of workers can be.

“I’ve been well-pleased as to this job,” she said.

Bannister’s daughter, Teresa Stienstra, was visiting from Florida and stayed at the crosswalk as Bannister said her goodbyes.

“She’s just really enjoyed it,” her daughter said. “It was this, housework and gardening. She just loves kids.”

The decision for her to retire wasn’t an easy one, Stienstra said, and was made mainly for health precautions.

Although Bannister is doing well, and lives near the crosswalk she serves, the possibility of falling in bad winter weather is a concern.

Born in northern Bartholomew County, Bannister said she and her family, which included nine children, moved to Columbus in 1978. The family happened to move next door to then-Columbus Police Chief Bob Talkington, whose wife asked her if she would be interested in being a school crossing guard.

“And I said, ‘Sure, I’ll try it,’ ” Bannister said.

Over the past 37 years, she’s had different assignments, starting out at Lafayette and Second streets and then moving over to afternoon crossing guard duty on Marr Road. She had the busier intersection of Gladstone and Illinois for awhile but then moved a block down to Illinois and Brooks to finish out her tenure.

Over the years, Bannister has been known for being “put together” at her crosswalk — with an impeccable outfit and her hair done, said Lisa Williams, who supervises the crossing guards as an administrative specialist.

She’s made friends with the parents who walk their students to school on occasion, and with those who drive by and wave. The bus drivers would stop during the cold winter months and share handwarmers and encouragement, she said.

Bannister smiles when she remembers that she has reached the second generation of shepherding kids across the street. Some of the students from years ago now have children of their own at Fodrea, and she has made that connection on occasion with parents who remember her from when they crossed at the crosswalks to the school.

Nicole Nicholson, whose son Cam, 6, is in first grade at Fodrea, and Max, 4, in pre-K, stopped by and said she and her boys wanted to express their thanks for her work as a crossing guard, and prepared a card and a balloon and some chocolates as a gift.

“My boys tell her ‘Take care’ on Fridays and she always replies, ‘You all have a great weekend,” Nicholson said. “We wave at her every day, and I just wanted to acknowledge what she has meant to us.”

Nicholson mused that she is 37 and finds it amazing Bannister has been working that many years as a crossing guard.

“She’s been keeping Columbus kids safe my whole life,” Nicholson said of Bannister. “She deserves a parade — maybe a gold watch.”

A group of substitutes will be filling in for Bannister as she steps into retirement, which will include more time for the retired crossing guard to spend cooking, baking and gardening.

Bannister will keep her school crossing vest which has nearly all the crossing guard pins that employees receive for years of service. She has lost a few, but there is still one still there recognizes her for 25 years as a crossing guard.

“I may have to frame this,” she said of the vest, which remains remarkedly crisp and clean even after decades of service.

And what will she miss the most?

“The kids,” she said. “See what I’m going to miss?” she said as she looked around at the kids milling about her as they said farewell.

“Thanks for keeping us safe,” said Max Nicholson, as he impulsively ran back to give her a quick hug before he headed home.

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Three other Columbus crossing guards retired this year:

  • Norman Barr, a retired Columbus Police officer who served more than 50 years with the department, including managing and scheduling crossing guards and working on parking enforcement and then working as a crossing guard for more than 15 years.
  • Gene Jackson, 15 years
  • Mary Belle Barr, 6 years

Source: Columbus Police Department

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Local residents interested in applying to be a crossing guard for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. should pick up an application at Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St., in the human resources department.