As students walk, bike and scooter to Spring Creek Elementary School, one man is there at the crosswalk with a stop sign to make sure they arrive at school safely, and a joke to start their day off right.
Bennie Pate, affectionately known as “Mr. Bennie,” has been the Spring Creek crossing guard for three years. He joked his name should have been “Norm” from the 1980s sitcom “Cheers,” because everybody knows his name.
“There’s hardly a time that I don’t go someplace in town and I see a kid waving at me or come up and say hi,” Pate said. “It’s a great feeling. I didn’t seek that, but I definitely accept it and embrace it. It’s wonderful.”
Every school day, the father of two and grandfather of three is posted at the intersection of W.S. Phillips Parkway and Brewster Drive in College Station. He’s always dressed for the weather — rain gear, warm layers — and also for seasonal celebrations. That can mean a Halloween costume — most recently, as a person who has been abducted by an alien — or one of his many Santa hats.
People are also reading…
When the weather gets bad, Pate said, he has the option to take breaks in his vehicle — an El Camino. However, he has never made that choice.
“If school is open, I’m there,” he said. “Inevitable there’s going to be a kid come across, and as long as there’s a kid coming across, I’m there for them.”
Part of his approach to being a crossing guard, especially at the elementary level, is thinking of himself as being on the same level as the students he sees each day, he said.
Pate, 68, said he was apprehensive at first about moving to the elementary school from College Station High School. He spent 4 1/2 years there before the position was eliminated, and he transitioned to Spring Creek. Now, he sees it as a blessing.
By the end of the school year, he said, he is usually happy to get some time off to bass fish, but by the middle of the summer, he’s ready for school to start again and be back at his corner.
“He is literally the heart of Spring Creek; he really, really is,” said Mindy Chapa, assistant principal at the school. “He is amazing in every way.”
Chapa said about a third of the students walk or ride their bicycles or scooters to the neighborhood school each day. She called Pate an extension of the family atmosphere they try to create at the school.
“He has such a connection with the community that he knows the parents; he knows the families very well. He knows what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “He just has that connection where he just loves these kids inside and out and wants the best for them. He really does. He is just an incredible, incredible human being.”
The position was a result of Pate’s wife suggesting he find something to do after retiring from a career that included being a carpenter at Texas A&M, an employment specialist at MHMR Authority of Brazos Valley and a mechanic with Texas A&M Utility & Energy Services.
When she suggested he find a new job, he jokingly asked if he should be a Walmart greeter or a school crossing guard. Then, a few days later, he came across a job posting for a school crossing guard through the city of College Station.
The new role came naturally, he said, as his tendency to talk and get to know others has helped him form connections with students, parents and the community.
Spring Creek parent Jon Jarvis first saw Pate at College Station High School and witnessed the connection he had with students.
“I always saw this crossing guard who was like bumping fists with all the kids, and they all liked him too over there, and I was excited when he came over here just because I was like, ‘Oh, cool, we get this guy,’” Jarvis said. “He’s a really great guy.”
Jarvis said Pate even knows his youngest son, who is not old enough to attend school yet, and notices when the toddler is not with them.
“He’s like nice to everyone, no matter who they are,” Spring Creek fourth grader Karter Morton said.
Morton’s classmate Collins Hudiburgh agreed.
“He’s like a really nice person,” he said after the pair safely crossed the street on their way to school on a frigid January morning after the winter break. “He always has like a daily joke for us. He always talks to people very nicely, unlike [any] other crosswalk person that I’ve ever known.”
Pate said it makes his day when he is able to help students smile on their way to school. He said he has encountered students who were coming to school unhappy or crying because of situations at home.
“I can’t fix that,” he said. “But I can try to fix the rest of their day. … And try to give them something to smile about.”
That is what led him to start telling a daily age-appropriate joke he finds online or in joke books. The tradition began when he worked at College Station High School. Pate said he saw children of divorced families and students who were arriving at school unhappy, and started using a joke to break the tension.
“If they can get across the street from a boo-boo lip to smiling, I’ve done a good turn for the day,” he said.
That connection Pate has with the students, Chapa said, gives students another safe person they can talk to when they might not feel comfortable talking to a teacher or administrator.
“Him being present, I think, is what makes him kind of stand out, because he’s not just on a hill with his stop sign,” she said, calling him a “rock star.” “He comes in the school — in their setting, in their environment — and he just connects with them and he talks with them.”
Pate said he tries to attend as many school events and programs he is invited to by students.
And while he may not be a teacher in the traditional sense, Pate said he uses his time with students and parents to pass along common sense tips and safe practices when crossing an intersection.
He also extends the lessons to drivers, telling them to not stop in the crosswalk, and encouraging people to think if their child was crossing the street.
“I’d jump in front of a car for a kid,” he said. “I’ll jump on top of a car. I’ll jump on their hood. I’ll bust a windshield if I have to. I haven’t had to, but I’m prepared to. I take it real serious.”
While he appreciates the thanks and gifts people give him for keeping their students safe, he said it is a “no brainer” for him.
“This is what we do,” he said.