Last fall, when Arlee Willits signed on to be a school crossing guard, she did it for some sock-drawer money.
She and Don, her husband of 55 years, were watching the 5 p.m. news when a story about a crossing guard shortage prompted her to go online for more information. There she learned that the job required two hours a day helping kids cross the street, one shift in the morning, one in the afternoon, and paid $15 an hour.
It wasn’t Citibank CEO money, but for two retired people with a small pension and their Social Security checks, it wouldn’t hurt.
She took the physical, passed with no problem, and was assigned to a crosswalk outside Emerson Elementary in the Salt Lake City School District, about four blocks from her home.
She figured she’d maybe do it for a year.
Little suspecting it was about to become the thing in her life she most looked forward to every day.
* * *
Arlee is twirling a Swiftie friendship bracelet on her wrist as she tells her story.
A little girl gave her the bracelet “just yesterday” as Arlee was helping her cross the street.
“I was not into Taylor Swift but I am now,” she smiles.
The small gifts have been coming in on a steady basis for most of a year now, dating back to January — right after Don died.
The stroke and subsequent heart attack came unexpected, unwanted and unbidden. One minute Don was sitting in his easy chair next to Arlee, watching TV, the next he was in intensive care. He died after a 23-day battle, on Jan. 5, 2023. He was 80.
The ordeal had transpired for the most part during the holiday break when school wasn’t in session. Arlee missed the first week when classes resumed in January but by Monday, Jan. 16, she was back guarding her crosswalk on Harrison Avenue.
The kids, and the parents who often accompanied them, wanted to know where she’d been. Had she taken extra vacation? Did she go somewhere fun?
“No,” she said. “My husband died and I needed to take care of the funeral arrangements.”
Bear in mind that by this point, four months into Arlee’s crossing guard tenure, the kids — she has between 35 and 50 “regulars” on any given day — knew her, and she knew them. She could recite all their names as easily as a first grader can rattle off the alphabet song.
(Unlike a lot of us, who forget someone’s name five seconds after hearing it, Arlee is good at remembering people’s names, a talent she says she has put to good use regularly in her life because “people just love to hear their name.”)
The very next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, Arlee was flooded with cards and flowers and expressions of sorrow for her loss. The outpouring was overwhelming.
Arlee has great family support — she and Don have six “wonderful” grown children and 14 grandchildren, all of whom rallied at their father and grandfather’s passing. But they each have their own lives, and since Don died, Arlee found herself alone in the house they shared. When she wakes up, there’s no one else there.
Suddenly, getting up every weekday morning at 6:15 so she could be at her post on Harrison no later than 7:10 transformed from a job into a blessing. Her crosswalk became her sanctuary.
“It literally gave me something to look forward to each day after my husband passed away,” she says.
For two hours a day, it became her de facto family.
Her therapists are all under 12 and average about 50 pounds.
Sitting at home, doing this interview, she sees them in her mind’s eye.
“I see Nolan and Thomas,” she says, “I see Magdalena and Emilio, I see Lucy and Margaret, I see Vivian, I see Eleanor, I see James and I see Piper, I see Holden and I see Brayden and I see Drake and I see Becca and Jonah — you know it just goes on and on.
“I’ve got some little kids that come literally running down the street, ‘Hi, Arlee,’ and I have to say ‘Stop right there, until I come and get you.’ I’ve gotten mugs that say ‘best crossing guard ever’ and they bring me a lot of paper airplanes.”
It probably goes without saying, Arlee has no intention of quitting. And it’s not because Mayor Erin Mendenhall has upped crossing guard wages to $17.85 an hour.
“It’s not a lot of pay for the work that you do,” says Arlee. “But to me it’s not work, it’s fun. It makes my day. I hope it makes a difference in the kids’ day too.”