01 Feb Crossing Guard Makes Sure Kids Don’t Experience What He Went Through
Earl Tate smiles when he sees one of “his kids” coming, a 5-year-old headed to the bus stop for kindergarten.
“Ayy!” the child calls, running to Tate for a high five. Tate seems to offer his gloved hand but lifts it up before the child can make contact. A swing and miss for the elementary schooler.
“Whatsa matter? Can’t catch it?” Tate teases with a throaty chuckle. The pint-sized student, smiling, tries again. But Tate, about two feet taller, plays keep away.
“Come on,” Tate laughs before giving in. “How did you enjoy your days off?”
Tate, 66, is a crossing guard. He has been watching over an intersection in northeast Wilmington every school day for 19 years. He does it for free, and he loves it.
“Yes, indeed,” he said on Tuesday, smiling in his yellow safety vest at 26th and Jessup streets. “I be out here having myself a ball of fun with the kids.”
He gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day to greet and protect children waiting for the bus. From 6 to 8:15 a.m., he helps high schoolers, middle school students, and what he calls his “little ones” start their day.
In the short time he spends with the students, Tate sees his role as much more than a steward. He teaches kids sign language, challenges them to race each other to burn off their energy and improvises rap songs, creating rhymes with their names. (He’s “Earl, the pearl.”) He plays “hot hands,” a hand-slapping game, with the children, and performs his impressions of Elmo, Fat Albert and Mickey Mouse. In the springtime, he said he brings jump ropes and dumbbells to keep the young people busy while they wait for the bus.
Tate said he has a lot of love to give.
“If we don’t know how to receive it, we won’t learn how to give it out,” he said.
Abigale Downer, a 12-year-old student at Springer Middle School, said Tate is “the best.”
“He’s always making jokes,” she said. “He even makes his own music with his mouth. He always makes me feel happy… He always asks if I’m OK.”
Tate said he wants to teach children to “use their mind for more than just a hat rack.”
“Once you learn how to do it up here,” he said, pointing to his head, “you got it made in the shade.” (Tate is fond of rhymes.)
In between rounds of kids, Tate smiles and sings to himself — di di di di di deet do — and signals to drivers, who honk in greeting.
“Hey, hey!” Tate says to drivers as they pass. “Alright, alright. Uh huh.”
He waves, followed by a gesture to “hang loose” (what he calls the “hang on in there”) and the sign language expression of “love.” He also greets adults who walk by with a grin, a fist bump and a cheerful, “You have a nice day now.”
Theresa Barrett, a teacher at nearby childcare center LJ’s Playpen Academy, walked one of her students to the bus stop Tuesday morning. The 30-year-old remembers Tate helping her cross the street when she was a child walking to Warner Elementary School.
“It had an impact on you, seeing him, him giving you high fives,” she said. “Some kids don’t get that happy morning, and that makes their morning.”
Barrett said Tate has had a large impact. “There’s nowhere you can go on this side of town and someone not know Mr. Earl.”
Tate’s passion for traffic safety stems in part from personal experience. When he was five, he said he was run over and dragged about 30 feet by a car. Severely injured, he was in a coma for a month and a half, and his right side was paralyzed.
But Tate, who walks with a cane, hasn’t let his physical challenges stop him from smiling. Unflinching optimism is “part of me,” he said, and he couldn’t name anything he doesn’t love.
“He who thinketh negatively has defeated himself even before he begun,” he said, quoting a poem he wrote. “But he who thinketh positively with knowledge and understanding can claim the victory… That’s me. I learned how to be positive.”
Tate said he was a paid crossing guard from about 1979 to 1984 and has held many other positions in Wilmington throughout the years. He was a longtime Boy Scout and scoutmaster, leading the troop of now State Rep. Charles Potter Jr. He studied karate and became a martial arts teacher in his church. He’s also a deacon, a former substitute teacher and a frequent face in City Council meetings because, he said, he wants to elevate “not only what the adults say, but what the kids say, like when they want more activities.”
Charles Brittingham, president of the Wilmington branch of the NAACP, of which Tate is treasurer, said although his longtime friend has faced challenges, “Earl has never given up.”
“He’s got a heart of gold,” he said. “He’s out there every morning. No matter how cold, he’s there.”
Tate has been married 35 years and has two grown sons who are in their 30s. He could use his senior years to sit back, he said, but the kids give him life.
“As long as there are kids out here, I’ll never grow old,” he said.
Tate said when the children he interacts with in the morning grow up and see him again, they are grateful.
“They say, ‘I’m glad there was someone like you to help me along,'” he said. “It makes me feel good.”