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There’s no stopping this crossing guard

Chris O'Connell Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday September 01, 2001

There she stood, at the same spot she’s been at for decades, with stop sign in hand and wearing the obligatory fluorescent orange cap, vest, and gloves that are supposed to – but don’t always – alert drivers to her presence. 

“As loud as I dress they still don’t see me!” she chuckles. 

Wednesday was the first day of school, not only for some John Muir Elementary School students, but for crossing guard Lena Hedge. Actually, it was Hedge’s 34th first day of school and she wasn’t taking any chances. 

Up early and out the door, she was at her post where Claremont Crescent meets Claremont Avenue to make sure both wide-eyed kindergartners and the veteran fifth-graders made it safely across. 

Hedge rules her patch of road and sidewalk with love and discipline and it works: she’s made it more than three decades without a single accident involving a student under her supervision. 

“I have my rules and ain’t nobody been hurt yet.” 

At the age of 79, Hedge is far and away the most senior of the 21 crossing guards and one alternate employed by the Berkeley Police Traffic Bureau. 

Stand with her for 15 minutes and you can see what a neighborhood institution she is. Ten cars don’t pull out of Claremont Crescent on to Claremont Avenue without a smile and a wave. 

A man rides by on his bike and calls: “Hi Mrs. Hedge, good morning!” 

She waves back and comments: “I crossed his kids, they’re lawyers now.” 

Hedge, who is African-American, has been at the same crosswalk since 1968 when the Berkeley Unified School District became the first district in the United States to voluntarily use buses to integrate its school system. She was reassigned to John Muir, from Washington Elementary, to help ease the transition of integration. 

Even in a city as apparently liberal as Berkeley was in the late ‘60s, that transition wasn’t an easy one for some people. 

“Oh yeah, at first I got called names, people threw some things at me like orange peels, but it stopped,” she said. 

Growing up, “smack dab in Atlanta,” Hedge lived in the same neighborhood as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and attended the very church where his father preached. 

“We were playmates,” is how she remembers the young Dr. King. 

That made Thursday, April 4, 1968, the day King was assassinated, all the harder. Recalling that day, Hedge solemnly pointed to the sidewalk and said, “That was a hard day ... I was right here.” 

Although Claremont Avenue regulars now adore Hedge, traffic hasn’t changed much. 

Despite city police traffic statistics that say there’s been only one auto accident near her crosswalk in the last year, Hedge believes that Claremont Avenue traffic is just as dangerous as it was when she started. 

“It’s all the same as far as I’m concerned,” she says above the din of road construction and honking horns at the Ashby/Claremont intersection just down the street. “People are still in a hurry.”