School crossing guards are hard to find. Fred Welstead has been on the job 26 years — and just turned 89
For 26 years, school crossing guard Fred Welstead has stood sentry on busy suburban streets, safely shepherding children who are walking and biking to and from school with a watchful eye, a gentle smile and a hand-held stop sign.
“The kids are essentially well-behaved, very courteous, and they always say ‘thank you,'” said Welstead, a Korean War veteran and retired commercial photographer, who recently celebrated his 89th birthday at his crossing guard post on Lake Cook Road in Barrington, Illinois.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and shuttering of Illinois schools in March 2020 found Welstead sidelined from his crossing guard gig. He is delighted to now be back to business as usual, which begins at 4:45 a.m., when he awakens at the Mundelein ranch home he once shared with his wife and two sons.
Welstead, whose wife, Phyliss, died in 2010 after nearly 50 years of marriage, lives alone these days since the passing of his 17-year-old poodle, Remy, a dear friend who was never far from his side.
Although Welstead enjoys his church community and dropping by the local senior center, where he picked up a fish dinner on a recent afternoon, he said his school crossing guard job brings meaning and purpose to his weekdays, which are punctuated by two shifts — before school and after school — at his post adjacent to Arnett C. Lines Elementary School and the Barrington Middle School Station Campus.
Welstead typically is at the scene well before students begin arriving, and during cold weather can be seen waiting in either his green SUV or his red Cadillac, before emerging in his parka and neon yellow vest ready to begin his shift.
A critical shortage of school crossing guards across the U.S. underscores the appreciation for reliable and experienced workers like Welstead, especially given the benefits that walking and bicycling to school have on students’ physical and emotional health, said Cassandra Isidro, executive director of the Fairfax, Virginia-based Safe Routes Partnership.
“School crossing guards have always been one of the least filled and most advertised positions, especially because there are not a lot of hours, and often a pretty low pay scale,” Isidro said.
“You have to find someone who is the kind of person who truly enjoys the job, doesn’t mind getting cold and wet, and understands the job isn’t easy,” Isidro added.
As a field supervisor with Andy Frain Services, Karisma Townsend visited with Welstead, one of her employees, this month at his post to hand-deliver a birthday card and wish him well.
“Fred has lived a good life, and a long life, and you have to celebrate that,” Townsend said.
“It can be hard to find school crossing guards because it’s only two hours or so a day, but I think that’s what keeps him going,” Townsend said. “He cares, he’s dedicated, and he does not take a day off, unless he has a doctor’s appointment.”
The part-time job is far removed from Welstead’s distinguished military service in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, which included photographing U.S. planes that crashed or were shot down, and Jeeps that overturned on rutted roads.
After the war, Welstead briefly returned to his hometown of Napoleon, Ohio, before heading out to Los Angeles to study photography, and eventually moving to Chicago. Here, he quickly found work photographing conventions, and met the woman who would become his wife at a Bellwood night club.
Still, his memories of the war years and snapping photos of celebrities — he recalls meeting actors Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore at a Chicago convention — have faded over time. These days, Welstead said he remains focused on staying healthy, including lifting weights at the Arlington Heights LA Fitness gym between his crossing guard shifts.
For Emily Kerous, a Barrington mother of three, knowing Welstead would be watching over her children when they crossed Lake Cook Road en route to school helped ease her mind during a recent surgery.
“I knew he would be there at the crosswalk. … He’s always prompt and always there,” Kerous said. “Rain or shine, Mr. Fred is out there with such a kind, quiet, pleasant presence.”
Kerous’ daughter Carrigan, 11, said, “Mr. Fred doesn’t talk much, but he’s very nice.”
“One of the things I noticed is that he always waits for us to get all the way across the street before he lets the traffic go again,” she added.
Of course, Welstead’s birthday also was recognized by families from Lines and Station schools, who decorated the crossing guard’s post with balloons and delivered cards and cookies.
“Every student 4 years old and up carries a cellphone now. … Sometimes, the kids bump into trees when they’re texting, so I do have to remind them to be careful,” said Welstead, who added although he enjoys the students and their families, he has grown weary of the inclement weather and is considering stepping down from his duties at the end of the school year.
“I don’t think kids have really changed much, but I would say they’ve gotten more courteous as time goes by,” he said.