Springfield's oldest crossing guard, Herman Hamilton, works down the block from Dubois Elementary School. He directs traffic at the corner of Monroe and Lincoln while puffing on an ever-present pipe. On Valentine's Day, Hamilton bought an exact number of suckers for every child on his watch. He handed out the candy as he talked to writer Traci Moyer about why he loves his job.
"In June I'll be 82. I'll have been married for 62 years. I haven't been a crossing guard very long--about four years--but I've been around Springfield for a while. I was born in Tice, Illinois, up by Petersburg, and I got two boys and a girl. As for grandchildren, well, I've got grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All together there are 23, and all but two of the grandchildren live around here. I have to love children--I've got 23 grandkids!
"I'm retired now, but I used to deliver magazines and newspapers to motels, hotels, drug stores, everything downtown. I did that about 30 years. I was a security guard about 40 years ago. It was while I was working near a railroad that I was chasing someone and I fell off the trestle and hurt my leg. It causes me to limp a little, but it only bothers me in the wintertime. Now I'm employed by the city. I work two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. I start at 7:30 and get done here around 3:30.
"Would I stand out here and volunteer if they didn't pay me? I'll be honest with you: no, I wouldn't. I used to volunteer all my spare time with the Sangamon County Veterans' Burial Detail. I was in the Army in the 22nd Infantry 4th Division from June of 1940 to October of 1945 as a rifleman. I didn't leave the States and I never had to go to war. When I volunteered on the burial detail, I was on the firing squad. We fire three shots apiece, and it's just like a regular army--we have a sergeant and everything.
With working out here, I can't do that anymore. But I wouldn't stand out here in this weather if they didn't pay me. As for pay, well, they don't pay much--no, they don't. They pay minimum wage, that's all, but I enjoy the kids.
"There are a lot of nice children here; they are wonderful. There are no rude kids that go to Dubois Elementary. I'll lose about ten kids this year when they go to Grant [Middle School] in the fall. This school is only from kindergarten to fifth grade. I know them all, and they know me. Every once and a while they will come back and give me a hug.
"During the summer I work for the carnival out at the fairgrounds. I've been out there for 27 years. I run the merry-go-round. I started working in carnivals when I was 15. We always started in April and stayed out the whole season until Thanksgiving. Later on I bought a pony ride. I had eight ponies, and my wife would help me set up the ring and take care of the ponies. We would travel all over Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa. I really enjoy kids.
"Sometimes it's scary--I've darn near gotten hit twice while standing here in the center. The last time was two months ago. Someone called the police, and a lady officer came out. She told me to get their numbers and she'd give them a ticket. Cars should stop because you never know when one of these kids is going to dart out in front of you.
"When we step out there, they are supposed to stop for us. Some are pretty good, but some don't know that the flag means stop. Most of the time it seems they're only in a hurry in bad weather.
"But the best part of this job is seeing the kids every day--they are just a polite bunch. Everyone at Dubois is polite; even the principal and teachers are awful nice. Not too long ago the principal came out and gave me this here whistle. He told me to blow it at cars. He is a real nice guy.
"I plan to do this job until I can't walk anymore. Then I'll have to give it up."