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City Employee Retires at 84 After 50 Years of Service By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday June 21, 2005

After two decades of escorting Berkeley school children across some of Berkeley’s busiest intersections, George Harris—one of the city’s oldest crossing guards—turned in his stop sign Friday. 

Harris’ retirement after 50 years as a Berkeley public employee, the last 20 as a crossing guard, was greeted with little fanfare but a lot of love from neighbors who said they appreciated his presence every school day. 

“He’s a very kind gentleman and just a very nice human being,” said Darryl Bartlow, a resident at the corner of Ashby and Fulton where Harris has served as a crossing guard for Le Conte Elementary School for the past 12 years. 

“He’s part of the neighborhood. It seems like he’s been our crossing guard since my son was a munchkin,” added Lisa Bullwinkle, another neighbor. Not only did Harris help Bullwinkle’s family cross Ashby, she said, but as an added kind act he baked them several batches of his signature dish, peach cobbler. 

“This job has been just like going to church for me,” said Harris, a North Oakland resident and the father of nine children. “I enjoyed the students so much I kept coming back every year.” 

Harris didn’t become a crossing guard for the money. Thirty years collecting garbage for the city netted him a pension, but retirement didn’t give him enough opportunity to chat. “George is a schmooze artist,” Bullwinkle said. 

On his last day, the retiring guard struck up conversations with pedestrians and cyclists as they waited for the light to turn green, not about his pending retirement, but about his time in the army. 

Harris grew up in Pittsburgh, Penn., the son of a bricklayer. In 1942 the army sent him to Berkeley. As a member of the 779th Military Police Battalion, he was stationed at Camp Ashby just west of San Pablo Avenue. 

“Back then, all you had to do was stand on Ashby and girls would say ‘Hey soldier boy’ and offer you a ride to San Francisco,” he said. “Those were the good old days.” 

The army sent Harris to Burma for the last year of the war, but he liked California so much, he came back for good in 1946. 

He got a job collecting garbage in Berkeley at a time when the metal bins didn’t have wheels and the garbage men hauled the trash over their shoulder into the truck. 

When he retired after 30 years without taking a sick day, Harris ran into a Berkeley police sergeant, who recommended he apply to be a crossing guard. 

“The sergeant told me never to hold a student’s hand or get to close to any of them because the others might get jealous,” he said. 

Harris has tried to follow the rules, but said he just couldn’t help talking to some students. “Sometimes if I’m walking on Shattuck, someone will call my name and say, ‘Mr. Harris, don’t you remember me, you used to cross me.’” 

As a friendly gesture a few years back, he gave his stop sign to Bullwinkle’s son, Tyler Volz. 

“Mr. Harris is the man,” said Volz, now a Berkeley High student. “He’d always put a smile on your face every time you see him.” 

During his 20 years on the job, Harris saw plenty of car accidents, but never let a pedestrian get hit. He said there were a few instances where he kept students from accidents, and recalled one time when a student yelled at him to dodge an oncoming car Harris didn’t see coming. 

“The boy basically saved my life,” he said. 

Even at age 84, with arthritis in his legs, Harris has mixed feelings about retirement. He said he might have stuck around a little longer if budget problems weren’t forcing the city to reduce the number of crossing guards next year. With his seniority, Harris knows his job would be safe, but he didn’t want to displace a crossing guard who needed the income. 

“I don’t want to take milk off anybody’s table,” he said. 

A devout Christian and member of Berkeley’s Progressive Baptist Church, Harris says he’ll spend most of his free time studying the Bible. But he promised neighbors Friday that he would make a few visits back to the intersection he patrolled for a dozen years. 

“I’m going to miss all these nice people,” he said. “Getting the wave from all the people walking and bicycling past. It made me feel good.”