KENNETH CITY — John Fugate stepped into the busy traffic on 54th Avenue N and tweeted his whistle. Arms extended, stop sign clutched in his right hand, he waited until every car braked, then waved to a first-grader to walk her Barbie bike across the street.
"Have a great day in school, Bailey!"
He knows all the students' names, how many books they carry and what time they get to his corner. Afternoons, he asks, "So how was school?"
Fugate, 75, has four grown children and seven grandchildren. But these kids — 40 students who ride their bikes or walk to Blanton Elementary School — belong to him, too.
The light changed, and a black pickup rolled by. A blond woman leaned out the driver's window. "Congratulations!" she called. "We all knew you're the best!"
Fugate waved. This week, he found out he was named Florida's Crossing Guard of the Year. Twelve people were nominated on the basis of their punctuality, safety record and so on, and the state Department of Transportation judged Fugate best.
"He is always on time and makes every effort to be the most professional crossing guard we have ever employed," Kenneth City police Cpl. John Esposito said in a nominating letter.
All that praise, and the police officer didn't even know about the time the crossing guard saved three kids.
• • •
Beneath his crossing guard hat, Fugate's thick hair is snowy. He laughs a lot. Drops his chin, insists no one wants to hear his story. He's just a guy who lives with two Old English sheepdogs and carries around photos of his wife of 46 years, Kathleen.
Fugate worked in steel mills most of his life, driving forklifts and front-end loaders in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Weekends, he moonlighted for the local police department, directing traffic.
In 2002, he and Kathleen moved to Florida — and he tried to retire.
But the person who had been Blanton Elementary's crossing guard quit. And someone in Kenneth City's police department asked him to fill in.
"At first, I didn't want to do it," said Fugate, who has manned the same post for six years. "But they said the kids needed me. What was I going to do?"
• • •
A long-haired boy on a skateboard. A mom holding a kindergartner's hand, pushing a toddler in a stroller. Two ponytailed girls wearing the lime sashes of the safety patrol.
"Good morning!" Fugate called to them. "I hope you ladies both have wonderful days."
The girls giggled. After he ushered them across the street, they turned around and waved.
"I think he's nice," said Kayla Carter, 10. "He always asks about school. And he listens."
At 8:20, Fugate checked his watch. His shift had ended five minutes ago. But three kids hadn't shown.
There's Tyler, who's 11, Victoria, 7, and 6-year-old Avery. They couldn't all be sick. Where were they?
Five minutes later, Fugate tossed his stop sign into his car and walked into the road to collect his cones. He was stacking the last one when he saw them coming down the sidewalk.
So he put back his cones and returned to his post.
"Morning!" he said as the children approached. "Everyone doing okay today?"
The oldest boy nodded and smiled. "Thanks to you," he said, "everyone's great."
Thomas Feather, 19, had walked his younger siblings to the crossing. He didn't know about Fugate's award, but he wasn't surprised.
"That man right there," Feather said, "he saved my brothers and sister."
Right after Christmas, he said, "there was this car turning into that crosswalk and it just wouldn't stop." Fugate ran in front of it, Feather said. "Put himself between the car and the kids. If it wasn't for him … ."
The award committee didn't know the guard had done that. Fugate never told anyone.
It was nothing special, he said. Just doing his job.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.