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Every so often on WGLT, we'll bring you the story of an unsung community servant who's making Bloomington-Normal a better place. Suggest a story by contacting news@wglt.org.

School crossing guard gig endears great-grandfather to Normal neighborhood

Gayle Thomas stops traffic
Emily Bollinger
Gayle Thomas, a great-grandfather in his 90s, is in his fifth year as a school crossing guard at the corner of Fell and Glenn avenues in Normal.

At the end of most school days, Filipe Bessa waits outside Glenn Elementary School to meet his daughter Lua. The Bessas live nearby, so the pair walks east on Glenn Avenue.

When they reach Normal’s busy Fell Avenue, crossing guard Gayle Thomas is there to greet them. The retired construction manager, who's a great-grandfather, stands at the ready — dressed in a bright reflective yellow vest.

“He’s super friendly, very helpful — rain, or shine … or blizzard,” said Bessa. “What’s most amazing is how cheerful he is every day. You know? You ask him how he’s doing and he says ‘Chipper as ever.'"

Five years and counting

Back in 2018, the Normal Police Department decided to contract its school crossing guard program out to California-based All City Management Services.

That’s when Thomas, of Normal, decided to apply for job. He credits his son Roger Thomas, who also lives in town, for suggesting it.

“I want to keep active after I’ve retired, and also do something to kind of help the community,” said Gayle Thomas.

When the trio of old maples turn golden each fall, that's school crossing guard Gayle Thomas' favorite time to be posted there.
Michele Steinbacher
When the trio of old maples turn golden each fall, that's school crossing guard Gayle Thomas' favorite time to be posted there.

For the most part, drivers are courteous and heed his "Stop" sign, driving safely near the crosswalk, said Thomas. But sometimes drivers coming from the south are blinded by a slight hill and don't realize the crosswalk is there, he said — so he's careful about that.

Glenn Elementary Principal Scott Vogel said Thomas takes his role seriously.

“During the rainy season, he’s out holding an umbrella, waiting for kids to come. If it’s in the snowy season, he’s out there with a snow shovel, clearing the way. And if it is just leaf season, and there’s leaves blowing all around, he’s got his little leaf blower out there."

Thomas says he's comfortable in all kinds of weather. But his favorite time of year to be a crossing guard is in fall. Besides the excitement of the back-to-school season, it's beautiful at his post, he said.

"On the corner of Fell and Glenn there's three big maple trees," said Thomas. Those trees serve as an umbrella when there's a light rain, and provide shade from the sun on hot days.

"I just kind of enjoy that corner," he added.

All his extra attention to clearing the paths through the four seasons has made Thomas a bit of a neighborhood celebrity. Here’s how Glenn parent Mike Luchies describes the crossing guard: “Amazing."

"I mean, you know, I feel like he’s a local legend in some ways," said Luchies, adding he always brings a smile to the people he helps.

Thomas says that joy is reciprocal. He calls the grade-schoolers crossing his path “little sunbeams.”

Luchies' boys, third-grader Luke and first-grader Oliver, also are big fans of the keeper of Fell and Glenn.

Luke says he thinks it's “cool” how the crossing guard helps kids. He also is quick to point out he loves Thomas’ red hatchback, parked each morning along Fell.

Oliver thinks a crossing guard as happy as Thomas deserves a really good paycheck. “I’d pay him a thousand of (sic) dollars” if I could, he said.

Crossing guard part of Glenn family

Students passing the street corner, along with their families, have adopted Thomas in a way. When the weather’s bitter cold, they’ll bring him hot coffee. And on warmer days, an orange juice.

Glenn's Vogel noted that some families even bring the crossing guard gift cards at Christmas. That’s because Thomas is part of the Glenn family, even if he doesn’t officially work for Unit 5, said the principal.

Glenn exterior
Google Maps
Glenn Elementary School in Normal.

“They come up, he interacts with them. He talks with them, he gets to know their names. He gets to know the younger siblings who eventually become Glenn Eagles,” said Vogel.

Thomas recalls one young toddler riding a scooter, alongside her older brothers and sisters. Now in his fifth year as a crossing guard, Thomas says he’s watched her grow up. She might be in second or third grade now, he noted.

Dave Bier, a grandfather whose granddaughter Neveah Arms attends Glenn, said he’s seen Thomas on the job, and it's some true dedication.

“The guy just goes way above the norm. You know, he’s cleared off the sidewalks for kids,” said Bier. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him miss a day.”

And its not just the school families. Glenn Avenue resident Melissa Lauritson also notices Thomas' efforts.

In her decades living near the school, and watching school crossing guards posted at the Fell corner, Lauritson says by far Thomas is the most dedicated. That's not to say the other crossing guards didn't do well too, she said, adding Thomas is in a class of his own.

She's watched Thomas at work, putting ice melt on the sidewalks, or even making sure rainwater had an escape route down to the curb.

Gayle Thomas, 93, of Normal, a school crossing guard for Normal's Fell and Glenn avenues, visits the WGLT studio.
Michele Steinbacher
Gayle Thomas, 93, of Normal, a school crossing guard for Normal's Fell and Glenn avenues, visits the WGLT studio.

The fact he’s in his 90s, and still working, does come up from time-to-time, but Thomas doesn’t mind.

“One parent said, ‘Well, I’m 41 years old,' and I said, 'Well, I have a granddaughter that age,'" laughed Thomas. “(The families) don’t realize that the parents are the same age as some of my grandchildren.”

Principal Vogel said it’s true the crossing guard’s age is a talking point. But that's only at first.

“Parents have come up to me and said, ‘Do you know that Gayle Thomas is 93 years old?’ And the first time kind of caught me off guard. But ever since then, it’s like, man, that guy just has a heart to serve,” said Vogel.

Thomas arrives weekdays about an hour before the school bell rings. He sets up on the corner and takes out of his car whatever the weather calls for — be it a shovel, snowblower, ice melt.

Thomas helped create Unit 5, ISU landmarks

Working outside comes naturally, as does managing a situation. That’s because Thomas worked for more than half a century in construction management.

There’s a little serendipity at play, considering his late-in-life turn at school crossing guard: Much of Thomas’ career focused on the brick-and-mortar of schools.

After graduating from Hope College in Holland, Mich., Thomas headed west, where he surveyed the future home of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Eventually, he made his way to Illinois.

“When I came to town in 1959, I started out with Chiddix Junior High, and then I went on to Normal Community West High School, and then the new Normal Community High School. … plus some other schools.

“One reason why it is interesting is because I went an extra year to college to get my teaching certificate, and instead of teaching at schools, I wound up building them,” said Thomas.

His fruitful career in central Illinois began with J.L. Wroan. He eventually created his own business, and his work on academic buildings stretched into higher education.

He retired at 86 from the construction management field. But first, he had a role in the creation of several landmark Illinois State University structures.

“I was involved in the building of, I think, about 9 or 10 structures here, starting out with Horton Fieldhouse and then University High School,” he said, while visiting the WGLT studios on the Illinois State campus.

“And then I ended up representing ISU in the building of the arena, which is now the CEFCU Arena, and also the ISU Science Lab Building,” he said.

Horton Field House last hosted an ISU basketball game in 1989.
Emily Bollinger
Horton Field House was last used as ISU's home court for basketball games during the 1988-89 season. It also hosted an ISU game in Dec. 2022.

The crossing guards that serve on Bloomington and Normal streets fall under the purview of the city police departments. But for several years, both Normal Police and Bloomington Police have contracted the service out. Both use ACMS.

Jennifer Metcalf, ACMS assistant regional manager, said the hard work of Thomas hasn’t gone unnoticed. This time last year, the company named him Bloomington-Normal crossing guard of the year.

The award didn’t surprise the staff and parents of Glenn.

With Thomas, age really is just a number, noted the Glenn principal. He’s found a job that allows him to serve the community, added Vogel, noting, his friendly persona has made an impression on Glenn students.

“He does make an impact in our learning environment, whether he knows it or not," said Vogel.

"His heart is so incredibly focused and invested in our kids and our families. People are going to remember Gayle Thomas for years — just like he was their classroom teacher.”

Summer break won't slow down senior

The nonagenarian plans to stay active this summer, waking early, as usual.

The school crossing guard likes spending time with the four generations of his family. He has three sons, eight grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren.

Son Charles’ family lives in Indiana; Bruce’s is in Wisconsin; and Roger’s lives here in Normal. So, with family spread, he might be traveling this summer, too.

Thomas says his love of the outdoors means he’ll also continue his daily bike rides on the Constitution Trail, and playing with his pup, Lambeau.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.