At 7:50 a.m., Lois Vogt climbed out of her minivan, put on a neon yellow reflector vest and grabbed her stop sign.
She walked toward the day’s first post—at corner of Route 33 and Yardville-Hamilton Square Road—and smiled as I approached.
“Early for you?” she said, with a laugh.
It wasn’t that early, but it was cold for mid-September, in the 40s. It’s the kind of cold that slowly saps the heat from your hands and leaves you wondering when they numbed.
A coddled office worker, I apparently don’t adapt well to any sudden variations in temperature, leading to expressions that may give the impression of tiredness. But Vogt has worked through worse weather—like yesterday’s soaking rains or last week’s heat and humidity or the times in the last 20 years she has had to shovel out a spot in the snow to stand, just in case someone’s child has decided to walk to school.
So, today’s not that bad.
Vogt gets to enjoy it all as one of 56 crossing guards in Hamilton, the people who bravely stand in the middle of roads with their arms extended so children can cross them without run-ins with folks who honk, hiss and hurry their way to work each morning. They return each afternoon to ensure students’ safe passage home. Vogt is one of the longest tenured of her kind in the township, having served since 1994.
Every morning, as I make my way to work, I pass at least six crossing guards, standing on street corners with their stop signs. Every morning, as I make my way to work, I witness at least one crossing guard nearly get hit by a car.
For years, I wondered, “Who are these people who enjoy stepping in the middle of rush hour traffic?” After a few games of phone tag, Vogt volunteered to be the case study.
Vogt enjoys the work and is remarkably upbeat about it, despite having endured the hazards of the job for so long. As she took a deep breath, peered into the distance and considered her role, an Acura ran a red light.
“I love doing this job,” she said.
The job has become increasingly vital. The school district recently changed rules to increase the number of students who do not receive bussing. The switch has created more walkers, particularly after school when many parents aren’t around to drive their children.
A second change has been more gradual, but equally important. Vogt has watched as open space in Hamilton increasingly becomes a thing of the past. Her first post—at Kuser Road and Whitehorse-Hamilton Square Road—had empty fields at three of the four corners. Now, there are two housing developments and a RiteAid pharmacy joining the long-standing gas station at the intersection.
Naturally, the development has lead to more people, which has lead to more and more traffic. With more people and more traffic comes more responsibility for crossing guards. People driving too fast is a common problem. Vogt said she will signal drivers to slow down, but there isn’t much she can do.
For more serious problems, she will write down the license plate number of the offending car, and call the police. Since crossing guards work for the Hamilton Police Division’s traffic department, they usually receive police support. The biggest issue is dealing with motorists making right-on-red turns. Every day, Vogt said people honk, curse and “lose their patience at us.”
“They think they have the legal right, but we’re in the middle of the road,” she said. “We’re not there to give the drivers a hard time. We’re there for the safety of the children.”
It’s not always a fair fight between one adult with a stop sign and scores of motorists in a rush. Still, Vogt comes back. She currently holds several other jobs—nights and weekends at Haldeman Nissan, when needed at Pedal Pushers florist, lunchtime as an aid at Sayen Elementary School, on-call 24/7 as a police matron—but the duty as a crossing guard holds a special place.
Often, the crossing guard association tries to recruit new workers from the township senior center; it’s a job with few hours that allows the worker to earn a bit of money. At the start, Vogt was at the opposite end of the spectrum. With three kids in school, she wanted a job that rotated around school hours. A parent at Reynolds Middle School recommended she look into becoming a crossing guard.
Her three children—Ryan, 31, David, 29 and Erica, 26—now have long been out of the school system, the last having graduated from Steinert High School eight years ago. But Vogt doesn’t forsee an end to her service.
Vogt took a two-year break from being a crossing guard a few years ago, when she picked up a full-time job. But she dropped the gig and picked up guard duty as soon as she could. The crossing guard job allowed her to learn the township—her family moved here from East Windsor in 1993, shortly before she started as a guard—and become part of the community. Crossing guards work special events like Septemberfest and the township’s Fourth of July fireworks. Most have the same posts for years, and they grow close to the children and parents they assist. In short, the job has given Vogt a sense of belonging.
“I love Hamilton,” she said. “I’ve never felt more at home than I have here.”
* * *
At 8:25, Vogt hopped back into her minivan, and set off for the intersection of Surrey Drive and Robert Frost Drive, in front of Alexander Elementary School.
No students crossed at Route 33, but, at Alexander School, she has less time for talking. Within a minute of arriving at her post, handfuls of students and adults come strolling toward the intersection from all sides.
She smiled as she raced back and forth between two crosswalks.
“This is where I get my exercise,” she said.
As she does her job, Vogt waves to people in cars and at school bus drivers. She talks to one girl about a Hello Kitty bookbag. A mother and Vogt joke about getting a second cup of coffee.
Although Vogt isn’t at her usual post—she rotates locations—she clearly has made short work of becoming part of the community. And Vogt said it’s all part of her job. Crossing guards develop a sense of who belongs to who and who doesn’t belong at all, she said.
In a way, crossing guards are a defense system for students, and not only because she stands directly in the center of the road, with arms out, potentially in harm’s way. (Although, there are few things more dangerous than being in the path of a vehicle operated by someone who has a child late for school.)
At Alexander, many of the students recognized her effort with shouts of “Thank you!”
One boy, running a bit tardy, thanked Vogt as his mother rushed him by the hand across the road. Suddenly, he stopped—not yet fully out of the street—and spun around. The quick move caused him to dangle off the ground as his mother attempted to lead him—in the air by one arm—to school.
“Hey, wait,” the boy said to Vogt. “You’re new!”
Vogt laughed as he continued on his way. The mother dropped off the child inside the school, and crossed again shortly thereafter.
Then, silence. No more cars or school buses. No more children walking to school.
A bit after 9 a.m., Vogt looks at her watch before turning to me.
“I know you’re having so much fun hanging out with me, but that’s it,” she said. “I’ll be back in the afternoon.”
So goes the life of a crossing guard.
Rob Anthes is senior community editor of the Hamilton Post. Connect with him at facebook.com/robanthes.