OGDEN — It’s fair to say that everybody and their dog loves John Lewis.
Children, parents, educators, motorists — yes, even the aforementioned canines — can’t get enough of the popular crossing guard at Wasatch Elementary School. So beloved is the man they call “Big John” that he’s currently in the running for the title of “America’s Favorite Crossing Guard.”
“I have a lot — a LOT — of good guards,” said Ogden Police Department special services coordinator Peggy Davis, who nominated Lewis for the award. “But John is an awesome guy. He doesn’t only care about the students that he crosses, he cares about the community.”
The “America’s Favorite Crossing Guard” contest, now in its second year, is sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Safe Kids Worldwide, and FedEx. The winner’s school receives a $500 grant, and the crossing guard earns prizes to make his or her job a little easier.
Anna Hunter is the playground monitor at Wasatch Elementary — and a huge fan of the school’s popular crossing guard. She has a son in second grade there, and they live just a block away.
“We use Mr. John every day,” Hunter said. “He’s an amazing man.”
Hunter says Lewis greets every child — if not by name, at least with a fist bump or a high five. She believes that any child who’s had a rough start to their day walks away happier after crossing at Lewis’ intersection.
“If I can help just one child have a good day that day, I’ve succeeded,” Lewis said. “So many kids — they’re not abused, but they just don’t have a good home life and have a big frown on their faces in the morning. If I can help that child find their smile, it’s worth it.”
Megan Weinberger, a second-grade teacher at Wasatch, says Lewis just has a “light” about him.
“If I get here to school before he gets here, I’m bummed,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘Dang it, I didn’t get my smile or wave.’ When he’s not at that corner, it’s different. It just feels different without him.”
Weinberger says she sometimes sits and watches Lewis interacting with the children outside the school. Many of the kids have even developed “secret handshakes” with the crossing guard.
“He has this different handshake for different kids” she said. “And he knows them all. It’s so amazing to watch him with the kids.”
Even children who have moved on to junior high school still remember Lewis and his infectious personality, according to Weinberger.
Davis and others say they’ve seen Lewis go well above and beyond the typical crossing guard duties of keeping kids safe when they cross. Lewis and his wife, Carolyn, donated dozens of stocked backpacks to the homeless this Christmas. Carolyn has crocheted dozens of winter hats for teachers and administrators to give out to students.
“He salts the sidewalk, he blows the leaves out of the way — he’s awesome,” said Liz Cannon, a resource teacher at the school.
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Lewis has also helped walk crying students back home when they’ve had school anxiety attacks, and he makes house calls to return lost gloves to their rightful owners.
“On hat day at school, one kid forgot a hat, so John gave him his ball cap,” Carolyn Lewis said.
Indeed, every spring the Ogden couple spends a few weeks in Yuma, Arizona. While he’s down there, Lewis buys 30 or 40 ball caps and brings them back home to give them out.
Davis says Lewis is all about serving others.
“I have seen John walk into McDonald’s, see someone down on their luck, and buy them lunch,” Davis said. “He’s also the ‘go-getter’ for all of his neighbors. If a neighbor says they can’t get to the grocery store for milk, John goes for them.”
Lewis even keeps a small propane heater in the back of his pickup truck, just a few feet from his intersection. It’s used to warm kids while he allows them to use his cellphone to call parents who’ve forgotten to pick them up.
And neighbors walking dogs have learned not to get in the way of their pets when they see Lewis. He keeps several sizes of dog biscuits in the back of his truck, and the local dogs now come running when they see the 73-year-old’s truck.
Lewis’ good deeds and love are reciprocated, according to Weinberger. One family with children at the school brought Lewis a giant cookie and held a little impromptu birthday party for him at his corner across from the school.
“And you should see the gifts he gets at Christmas time — gift cards and treats and all sorts of things,” Carolyn Lewis says. “I bet he got $50 in gift cards this year from these kids. He doesn’t lack on this corner!”
Kristin Rosenthal, program manager with Safe Kids Worldwide, says this is the second year for the America’s Favorite Crossing Guard competition.
“When we set out last year, we wanted to look at those unsung heroes protecting kids on their way to school every day,” she said.
Rosenthal says her nonprofit has teamed with FedEx for years.
“They don’t just write checks, their employees are super engaged,” she said of the courier delivery service partner. “They’re dedicated to safety.”
Last year, the contest attracted about 30 nominations. This year, it involves 55 crossing guards, representing 17 states. The winner will be crowned sometime in February or early March.
In addition to Lewis, Rusty Underwood, a crossing guard at Gramercy Elementary School, in Ogden, has been nominated for the award, as well as a third guard out in Tooele.
“Rusty’s a good guy, too,” Davis said. “He has a really busy stop, at 12th and Gramercy, and he does a great job of keeping the children safe.”
Jim Mieure, the principal at Gramercy, said Underwood is appreciated by parents, students, educators and motorists.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time he’s very friendly and waves at everyone,” Mieure said. “But he does get after those who are driving too fast.”
Mieure says Underwood is always at his post early, and rarely misses a day on the job.
Public voting on the 55 nominees for America’s Favorite Crossing Guard is open through Jan. 31, at safekids.org/crossing-guard. The top five vote-getters will then be assessed by a panel of judges, who will declare the ultimate winner.
As of press time, Lewis was in third place with 877 votes. Underwood was just out of the top five with 416 votes.
Lewis considers it an honor just to be nominated for the award.
“Wow,” he said. “That I have earned the respect and recognition of everybody involved is exciting.”
For her part, Davis asks locals to vote often for their favorite crossing guard. Voting can be done once every 24 hours, and Davis encourages frequent voting.
“Everybody vote, vote, vote,” she said. “We want Ogden on the map, we want to recognize our crossing guards, and we want our school to get that $500 grant.”