Richard Seiler photographed Donna Patterson while he was in the sixth grade in 2004 as part of the National PTA Reflections contest under the theme: "A different kind of hero."
The last of Smith Road Elementary School's old guard is gone.
Donna Patterson, once a fixture on the Lewis Avenue-Smith Road corner in Temperance, has officially retired from the post she held for 35 years.
School buses have taken walkers off the streets. The widening of Lewis Avenue has made safe use of the broad intersection by children all but impossible.
And there's a question of age. Did we mention that Mrs. Patterson is 83?
Mrs. Patterson, a stay-at-home mother of three children who lives several houses from the school, began guiding youngsters across Smith and Lewis shortly after the elementary school opened in 1971.
In that time, she's also served as Smith Road Elementary's unofficial school naturalist, guiding students along a nature trail she and her husband, John, blazed through a field and woods behind the school. The couple have been married 61 years.
"Everybody in the community recognizes her face," Principal Carol Perz said.
Several years ago the school built an outdoor learning center that seats 40 people in the wooded area and named it after her.
"That was done in her honor. Mom and Dad worked for years to clear the paths," said Phyllis Thompkins, her daughter and Smith Road's reading and media specialist.
"She's been very generous with her support and with her time," Mrs. Thompkins said.
As her mother progressed in years, Mrs. Thompkins said she made sure she was properly dressed in fluorescent orange that would stand out in dim, early morning light.
The wild clothing had its drawbacks when off the job, however.
Going to a restaurant with her mother after the morning shift was a real eye-opener for some of the patrons, Mrs. Thompkins recalled.
"We were real insistent that she wore bright clothes. She really stood out," she said.
The Bedford Public Schools' board of education took note last week of her retirement during a committee meeting.
"She's been wonderfully dedicated," Superintendent Jon White said, noting Mrs. Patterson's reluctance to leave her post.
"I think she wanted to work a longer time," he said.
Mrs. Patterson acknowledged that bus service and parents who drive their children to school have made her post unnecessary.
At one point, she had 40 children to guide across the streets. She would divide them into two groups to make the passage more manageable.
Last year she said she primarily kept watch over the youngsters who arrived at school early.
Her love of nature has also kept her involved in children's activities at the school. The role of education in the outdoors is reflected in the Smith Road Elementary School's first motto: "As the twig bends, so grows the tree," Mrs. Thompkins said.
In her first autumn without guard duties, she admits feeling out of sorts.
"I'm not liking it. I really don't enjoy not working with the kids, but that's the way it is," she said.
She doesn't plan to stay idle long. She's eyeing a return trip to Australia to visit her son, who moved there years ago to teach.
Her other son moved to Arizona, where he manages a store.
She also plans to continue working in her garden, where she takes pleasure growing tomatoes. Her parents were farmers and instilled in her a love of botany. For a time Mrs. Patterson raised tomatoes for the seeds, which she sold to seed companies.
Ms. Perz said Mrs. Patterson still volunteers to take children on nature walks and can point out to students the different flowers, some rare or endangered, that she has planted in the nearly 8-acre site behind the school.
"Years ago she took classes to her house to show them the backyard," Ms. Perz said.
Pay for the job didn't amount to much. Ms. Perz said the position paid about $10 an hour for only a few hours a day.
"You're really doing [the job] out of care for the kids," Ms. Perz said. "It's definitely not for the money."
Contact: Jim Sielicki at:
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