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Retiring crossing guard leaves impression on Westchase community

Westchase school crossing guard Robert Lewis, who retired on March 1 after eight years of duty, waves to a passing motorist along Gretna Green Drive. JOEY JOHNSTON | Special to the Times
Westchase school crossing guard Robert Lewis, who retired on March 1 after eight years of duty, waves to a passing motorist along Gretna Green Drive. JOEY JOHNSTON | Special to the Times
Published Mar. 16, 2018

WESTCHASE — Nearly every day for eight years, he was a fixture in the community, helping children safely cross the street to reach Westchase Elementary or Davidsen Middle School. Without fail, he waved and smiled to passing motorists.

And his signature line was always at the ready:

"Have a good school day!''

When school crossing guard Robert Lewis retired on March 1, Westchase residents felt like they were saying goodbye to a cherished family member.

As news of Lewis' retirement was announced a few weeks earlier on the Westchase Neighborhood News Facebook page, the comments began flowing.

Mr. Lewis waves to me every morning … He is fabulous and always has a smile on his face.

— Taryn James

Lewis was alternately flattered and mystified by all the attention.

"I try to do a job and that's it,'' said Lewis, 73, a Vietnam veteran who retired from the Air Force and was born on the Fourth of July in 1944. "I feel the love. And I love this community. I feel very proud of Westchase, even though I don't live here.

"The people here, they seem close. They talk to each other. They do things together. You don't get that anymore in a lot of places. I'm honored to be part of their lives.''

It was an inglorious task — at least by the standards of most people.

Lewis, retiring because doctors recommended he no longer drive due to failing eyesight, rose every school day no later than 5:30 a.m. He wanted plenty of time to reach his post at the corner of Gretna Green Drive and Kingsbridge Drive in the Fords section of Westchase.

Westchase resident Tony Abbott made it a point to visit with Lewis during the guard's final days of duty.

"He has become part of our lives,'' Abbott said. "He's my friend. I feel guilty if I don't stop and talk to him. He adds something special to my day.

"It's our saying at our home. We all say, 'Have a good school day!' I think Robert has taught us something. If you're kind and a nice part of someone's life, that has great value. We all could use more of that.''

Our mornings won't be the same.

— Leigh Akin

Lewis is from Orlando, where he graduated from Jones High School in 1962. After his military stint, he worked with the government as a contract officer who obtained military supplies, everything from janitorial items to construction equipment.

When he retired from that job, he wanted something meaningful to fill his time. Serving as a crossing guard, helping children, was an appealing option.

From the first day, he was waving and smiling. Initially, some residents viewed him with curiosity. But on a typical shift through the years, nearly everyone waves back. Sometimes, workday frowns changed to smiles after encountering Lewis.

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"I was taught by my parents to greet people this way,'' Lewis said. "It's not unusual to me. If it makes someone feel good, it makes me feel good.

"It never got boring for me out here. And I got to know everyone. I might not know the name, but I know the car. I know the kids on their bikes. They usually come and go in the same order. It might look like a typical day, but when you smile, it can add a lot.''

He is such a joy every morning. It doesn't matter how grumpy my kids are, they see him and it cheers them up.

— Christine Fletcher

On school days, Lewis was an early riser. He parked his blue Volvo down the street and prepared for his shift, well ahead of the first arrival.

"I remember my first group of little kids, but I don't see them anymore,'' Lewis said. "They're in high school. Some have graduated from high school.

"It will be strange not doing this, but I expect I'll still be up and around. I'm an early riser. I like to start my day and get things going.''

Lewis will have more time for his family, which includes a son and grandson. Other than that, he has a few hobbies to pass the time. He loves word-search puzzles. He reads mysteries and favors Westerns on television.

But at his core, Lewis is a people person.

There's a community of people he will miss, although he already has planned occasional returns to some families. On his final days, he was visited by residents who brought baked goods, gift cards and handwritten thank-you notes.

And smiles.

Always, there were smiles.

"I do love life and I love people,'' Lewis said. "When you're alive, you don't have bad days. Circumstances may not be like you want them, but it's not a bad day. That's just the way I am.

"I had very good parents. They taught me that when you're nice to people, it comes back to you. It's just part of my job.''

Just then, a runner stopped to shake the hand of Lewis.

"Good morning, Mr. Lewis. How are you?''

He smiled.

"I am rather well, thank you. I am rather well.''

He is such a pleasant man and I will miss waving to him daily.

— Joanne Westmoreland.

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