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A GUARDIAN ANGEL IN ORANGE GLOVES

"Miss Gloria" Smith knows who's who and what's what, and talks with her hands to keep her children safe.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Gloria Smith waits inside a gold Hyundai parked on the grass at Longleaf Elementary School.

Parents trickle past her, awaiting school dismissal. Some stand on nearby corners to meet their kids and walk home with them.

"Good afternoon, everyone," a voice bellows over the loudspeaker. "It's time to go home."

And with that, Miss Gloria, the school's traffic control officer, springs into action.

Smith spends about two hours in the morning and one in the afternoon standing at Town Avenue and Fenceline Road. Smith, 73, is hard to miss in bright orange gloves, a brimmed hat and a "Traffic Control" vest.

Everyone knows her. And she knows them. The children's names, where their parents work, who lives in the nearby homes with the manicured lawns.

"Miss Gloria," asks a girl walking with a pink and white bike, "can I cross?"

"Not yet, hon," Smith replies as her orange glove flies in the air to stop traffic.

Rain or shine, the raspy-voiced New Yorker is all energy and hand gestures.

"I like kids, and I'm Italian. We talk with our hands," she says, laughing. "I swear I'm crazy. I'm the only one who loves their job. I got it made in the shade."

Smith took the job three years ago after her husband died of complications associated with Alzheimer's. She says she needed something to do, other than doting on her three children.

And Smith is used to kids. She was a school bus driver for 18 years.

"I do it because it gives me a life," she says. "And you get to meet a lot of people."

When she's not working, Smith bowls, goes dancing or invites friends over to feast on her famous chicken cacciatore. Her life philosophy:

"You live but once, so enjoy every moment of it," she says. "I like to be silly. I'm 73, but my mind is in my middle 30s."

For the most part, Smith has been a hit with school officials as well as parents.

"I love her, and if you're doing the wrong thing, she'll call you on it," said Arlene Bodden, the school's principal. "So some parents are taken aback. But her heart is in the right place. Some absolutely love her and feel like she's a family member."

Back at school, a caravan of school buses parades down Town Avenue. "Have a good one," Smith repeats five times for each passing driver as she waves them through.

Later, a girl in a pink shirt heads into the crosswalk toward Smith, pausing to hug her. Smith smiles as the girl wraps her arms around Smith's legs.

A parent waves and smiles. "Have a great one!" Smith says. "Enjoy your night, babe!"

About 45 minutes after she pulls up in her car, Smith's day is over. But not before a final goodbye from a bright-eyed boy in the backseat of an SUV.

"Bye, Miss Gloria!" he yells from a window.

"Bye, my angel! See you tomorrow!"

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at cspencer@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

FAST FACTS

Want to become a crossing guard?

The county's crossing guard program is administered by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

Crossing guards receive about 50 hours of training, and can help students cross the street. They must be available to work part-time for about four hours a day during the school year.

Crossing guards can be promoted to traffic control officers after they receive a few more hours of training. Traffic control officers work the same hours as crossing guards, but have the ability to direct traffic and are paid slightly more than crossing guards.

For information, call the Human Resources Department at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office at (727) 847-5878.

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