WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
As the morning school bell threatened to ring at Stewart Elementary recently, Dwayne Riedel peered through his glasses down 75th Street NW in Bradenton and watched a little boy feverishly riding his bike topple to the ground and knock out his front teeth.
Riedel, a 73-year-old Manatee County School crossing guard, who can’t bare the thought of a child suffering, painfully resisted the urge to dash down the street and comfort the boy. “I can’t ever leave my post, but thankfully there were moms and nurses in the area who saw it, and they rushed over to him like bees on honey,” said Riedel, thumping his fist across his heart as if reliving the traumatic accident. “But I had to do something. I had to help make this child feel better.”
After discovering the little boy voraciously read Harry Potter and was pages away from finishing book six, Riedel headed down to Books-A-Million to buy him a gift: Book number seven.
“I don’t look at this as doing something over and beyond,” said Riedel, who smiles through his ocean-blue eyes and proudly wears a U.S. Navy pin on his chest. “I just wanted to show him I cared.”
Riedel might not see himself as an extraordinary crossing guard, but his community sure does. With more than 300 agencies and upwards of 15,000 school crossing guards in the state of Florida, this year Riedel beat out hundreds of entries in the Florida Crossing Guard of the Year award and was one of only three recipients to achieve this prestigious status. In addition, the state honored Riedel with The Extra Mile Award, an accolade given to only one crossing guard annually.
“Each year we’re asked to see if we have guards who go above and beyond, if they maintain a positive attitude, have any notable actions, community service, or contribute to a safe environment,” said Gordon Crawford, Riedel’s supervisor and the original nominator for the award. “Dwayne excels – no question – in every area. He’s loved not just by the children, but also by the parents, too. I’m very proud of Dwayne.”
After a breakfast of two bananas and black coffee out of a plastic tumbler, Riedel parks his bright red truck by his post at 75th Street NW and 15th Avenue each morning, meticulously placing out his orange cones.
He’s ready for the onslaught of kids he’ll help nurture across a bustling road filled with motorists who honk hellos and children who frantically roll down backseat minivan windows to wave enthusiastically at Riedel. They shout his name. They blow kisses. They give him birthday cards. They worry when he’s not there. They respect and love him.
“I think what makes me a good crossing guard is I can tell if a child is hurting or needs something,” said Riedel, who has worked as a crossing guard for three years now. “I get right down on their level, and I talk to them.”
Riedel, a former Navy man and volunteer firefighter who grew up in Middleport, New York and discovered he was adopted at age 13, empathizes with children in need. With a working single mother trying to make ends meet in the 1940s, Riedel was boarded out each week to a nanny who often beat him with a hairbrush. His mother would drop him off on Sunday evening and pick him up on Friday.
“Daycares weren’t common in those days, and this is just what you did,” said Riedel. “I just hated to go – begged not to go. My mom felt bad and would overcompensate sometimes. I loved Hopalong Cassidy, and she got me the whole outfit – black hat, black shirt, and black pants. From time to time, she’d take me out to this little farm to ride a white pony – just like Cassidy.”
Riedel paused for a moment, shifted his eyes skyward, and reflected on his days with the nanny.
“I’d never really thought of it like this, but I do think those experiences make me want to help children. They’re just so innocent,” he said.
After working as the lead pest control servicer for the Manatee County School Board for 33 years and one month, Riedel retired, itching to embrace a life of cruises and a parade of home projects like resurfacing his pool and landscaping. He viewed stepping into the shoes of a crossing guard as something to do, but then quickly realized it was much more than that. It became an honor to help children.
“I don’t want to ever let them down,” said Riedel. “One summer I had a triple bypass on June 14th, and I was back at my post for the first day of school on August 10th. I didn’t want anyone else there for the kids’ first week back.”
While Riedel expresses love for all children, he has a special place in his heart for the students of Stewart Elementary where he says the kids, parents, and teachers are some of the best around. He can rattle off many of their names, share what sports they play and if they’re sharp at math or art.
“Emmett, he loves football jerseys and wears one almost every day,” said Riedel with a deep belly laugh and a shake of his finger. “One day I asked him where his New Orleans Saints jersey was because I thought they were going to the Super Bowl. When he said he didn’t have one, I said he was fixin’ to get one. I always ask the parents first. It brings me joy to see him wear it.”
Even when Riedel is off duty, he continues to pour his love into the school community. He’s glided paintbrushes across poster boards to make signs, directed traffic (on his own dime) for the school’s holiday show, made cameos at Open House, and mingled with parents and students at movie night. This year, he’s set to throw beads and wave at hundreds of people lining Manatee Avenue as the Grand Marshal on Stewart’s Desoto Parade float.
“I’ve worked at six schools and Dwayne is the only crossing guard I’ve gotten to know – the only one I know by name,” said Stewart Elementary School principal Joe Hougland. “He truly cares about these kids, and he’s a part of our Stewart family.”
Like a proud hometown parade marching down the street, a group of students, parents and teachers last year greeted Riedel at his post with a special gift. Against a colorful backdrop of helium-filled balloons bobbing in then sun and signs doodled with heart-felt messages, the Stewart community presented him with a shiny silver whistle engraved with his name. Riedel often pulls it out of his front shirt pocket to show off his cherished gift.
“He got really choked up when he saw it,” said Shauna Francis, a member of the PTO Board at Stewart. “He’s a big softee at heart – like a loveable teddy bear. He was emotional and moved. My kids just love him and roll down the windows to wave at him. He missed all the kids so much during winter break that he said he was ready to come back.”
Riedel lights up at the mention of his own family, too. He can’t even talk about the deep love he has for his “bride” Jean, of 51-years without tears pooling up in his eyes, and he beams with pride describing his two children Steven and Cynthia and his grandchildren. He won’t hesitate to whip out his phone to show off a favorite picture of 5-year-old great-grandson Brantley, clad in camo and lounging with hands tucked behind this head.
“When I look at him (Brantley), I am overwhelmed,” Riedel said. “When I see him, I’m overjoyed. My family is the light of my life.”
Riedel, who makes a mean seafood gumbo and has a serious weakness for the Chantilly Cake at Publix, cherishes warm Florida days on the water and often paddle boats out onto lakes with his son to cast a shot at a giant bass.
From their boat in the Gulf, Riedel eagerly volunteers to keep tabs on scuba bubbles from his son spear fishing below the waves. Stock cars racing around the track at the Snowball Derby in Pensacola get Riedel’s heart pumping, and he’s known to hunt down 5 different Chinese lettuces to stir up in his famous New Year’s Eve chop suey.
While he doesn’t try to tackle too much between his morning and afternoon shifts as a crossing guard, Riedel slips away to tinker in the garage or read.
“I really love those novels by Nora Roberts,” said Riedel, releasing a sly grin and lifting his thick, gray eyebrows three times.
As students pack up their books for dismissal, Riedel is already standing at attention by his post. It’s the quiet before the laughter and excited chatter that Riedel can’t wait for.
“I’ll do this for as long as my health holds up, and as long as I’m having fun,” he said. “I give a lot, but I get so much more back.”