Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick
East Grand Rapids — The rising sun casts a bright beacon from the east as Howard Cassell reaches into his Toyota Camry and puts on gloves and a sun-yellow vest blinking with lights — essential gear on this chilly morning for taking up his crossing guard post at the corner of Breton Avenue and Hall Street SE.
Across the parking lot of Lakeside Elementary he spots Tina Murua, out for her morning walk with her dog Moxie. She’s known him since 2009, when she brought her older daughter Alaia here for her first day of kindergarten. Told that School News Network is doing a story on “Howard,” as he’s widely known at Lakeside, she happily exclaims, “Finally!”
“I had a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old and a dog, and I was juggling all three of them to walk her to her first day of school — it was really an emotional day for me. And we see Howard at the corner and he just greets us with … he has like an iconic laugh,” she says, laughing at the memory. “I was like, ‘This is gonna be OK. This is going to be a great experience for her.’ He was like the gateway to a fantastic elementary school experience.”
‘He’s a really nice person, and he just makes our day.’— first-grader Kate Larson
Tina’s children, Alaia and Maialen, later became safeties at Cassell’s corner, and she still looks forward to seeing him every morning. “He’s the sun, he really is,” she says.
Generations of Lakeside parents, students and staff would agree. For Cassell has been a fixture at the corner of Breton and Hall since 2004, making sure pupils safely cross that busy intersection and begin and end their school day with an encouraging word.
“The parents trust me with their kids, to get them back home safely,” says Cassell, 78. “They send them to school and I’m responsible for ‘em, back and forth. I try to greet them with a ‘Good morning!’ and speak to everybody.”
And how does he want to make them feel? “Good,” he says promptly. “Because they’re in there for eight hours or something like that. And it’s rough in there,” he adds with a laugh.
Connecting with Kids
Joining Cassell at the corner this morning are student safeties Hayden Miller, Charlotte Abbott, Jaylie Mehney and India Morrison, his helpers with safe crossings. They all appreciate how he cheerfully greets students by name and does nice things for them, like once helping a girl with an injured foot cross the street.
‘The parents trust me with their kids, to get them back home safely. They send them to school and I’m responsible for ‘em, back and forth.’— Howard Cassell, crossing guard
Volunteers Charlotte, “I notice that Howard makes connections with the kids. He always says hi to us in the morning, too.”
Cassell was once a safety like them, growing up in Washington, D.C. He and his wife, Valerie, came with children Michael, Brian and Lorraine to Grand Rapids in 2000 after he retired from the Air Force and the U.S. Government Printing Office. A few years later he saw an ad for a Lakeside crossing guard, and that was that.
“I’m retired, so I had to do something,” he chuckles. “If you don’t do something, you might as well go to the cemetery.”
He comes to school early, sitting in the hallway to chat with the teachers as they come in. On this Thursday morning he greets first-grade teacher Kaitlin Merpi, who promptly declares him “the best crossing guard in the entire world,” and then chokes up explaining why.
“I see him every morning when I come to school,” says Merpi, a 12-year Lakeside veteran. “He’s so sweet. He makes my day every day. Even when I was pregnant, he carried all my bags and brought them to my door. …” Then she’s off to a meeting.
A Welcome and Familiar Face
By 7:45 a.m. he’s at his post and here come the students, on foot, bicycle, scooter and skates, many with parents in tow. “OK Jake! Morning, Irene!” Cassell calls out. “OK guys, walk!” he shouts, toting a stop sign for two boys while they cross Hall. “All right, have a good day now!
“Come on, Drew!” he calls to second-grader Drew Davies, slapping his hand as he crosses Breton. “You ready for school?” “Yes,” Drew replies. “I like him very much, because he’s fun,” he confides to a reporter.
Then comes Sara Larson with her daughters, third-grader Emma and first-graders Molly and Kate, two-thirds of triplets with their brother Grant. They’ve been greeting Cassell each morning since Emma was a kindergartner and the triplets were in strollers.
“He’s a really nice person, and he just makes our day,” Kate says.
Son Grant has already beat them to school, his mom says: “I say if Howard’s there you can go, because I know he’ll make sure Grant gets to school.”
The morning bell is drawing near when Claramae Schwartz pulls up to the corner on her bike. “Here comes my little kindergartner. She’s a handful,” Cassell says with a chuckle. “Come on, Claramae!” he shouts across Breton.
She proudly informs him that she “flew up the hill” on her bike, but says she’d like everyone to calm down about the morning bell.
“I really like going to school on my bike,” she says. “I just don’t really like when everyone’s making me in such a rush. I’m going to be right on time.”
With Cassell’s help, she’s right on time, along with all the other Lakeside students. He’ll be back when school lets out at 3:20 to make sure they get home safe and sound, with a sunny smile and an encouraging word.
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