2017-05-24 / Features

‘Ditmars Crossing Guardian Angel’ Celebrates 35 Years!


Eryn Hatzithomas Photography, www.ehatziphoto.com Eryn Hatzithomas Photography, www.ehatziphoto.com Many of you know her as “Cathy the crossing guard,” a familiar smiling face helping children, families, neighbors with disabilities and seniors alike, cross the street at the corner of Ditmars Blvd. and 31st Street, in Astoria, for what seems like forever and a day.

But I know her as “Willy’s mom.” William Grey and I attended elementary school at Immaculate Conception, and everyone in our school thought he had the hippest mom in the 1980s. She knew our names, remembered who our parents were, always had a kind word to say. She stood bravely in uniform in the middle of the street, with a strong arm and whistle holding back tons of traffic to safely walk us across the busy intersection on a daily basis. This year, Cathy turned 70 years old, and celebrates 35 years in her gallant post! Her beautiful face with bright blue eyes is rugged terrain from the sun beating down on it for this long. She’s a survivor of skin cancer through these years of basking in the crosswalk’s sunshine, but she humbly covers her surgical scar with her auxiliary officer cap, and still shows up to work no matter what.

Mario Massa, the shift supervisor at CVS, has been working there for 34 years. “For over 30 years I’ve seen Cathy cross thousands of kids,” Massa gleams. “She’s the most dedicated person I’ve ever seen in my life. Snow or ice, Cathy is there, she never leaves her post. She is at the top of her game.” Massa is a member of the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, and he will be hosting their annual Flag Day ceremony at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 14, at Immaculate Conception’s flag pole on 31st Street, between Ditmars Blvd. and 21st Ave. “This year, Cathy will be our honoree. We will take down the flag which will be flying since Memorial Day, fold it and give it to her, and the kids in the school will sing a song about Crossing Guards for her.” As we talk, a passerby hears the tail end of our conversation, and shouts out, “Who are you talking about – the Crossing Guard?? She’s tremendous – I love her!”

Cathy’s first day on the job was Tuesday, November 24, 1981. She was 35 years old. It all began at her son’s Parent Teacher’s Association meeting at Immaculate Conception, where they asked the parents if anyone would be interested in becoming a school crossing guard for that busy eight-lane intersection where Pizza Palace stands. Since she walked her son to school back and forth every day anyway, she thought she’d give it a shot and applied. She was accepted, and after just one week of training at the New York City Police Department at 1 Police Plaza in Manhattan, she began her crossing guard journey, at just about $4.00/hr. pay. “I remember in the beginning everyone warned me of how cold I would be. I put on legwarmers and long johns and I’m standing in the middle of the street, all of a sudden I got so dizzy. I realized I had so many clothes on that my body couldn’t breathe! I said to myself I’ll just last the year, then I’ll give it up, and here I am now 35 years later,” she laughs, “I learned how to dress after that.”

Cathy pulls out her special MTA pack she keeps in her vest pocket close to her heart. It holds little memorial cards she publishes in the Daily News for her late husband each year since he passed away in 2007. They were married for 36 years. He worked as a bus driver for the MTA and at his funeral in Sunnyside, every bus stopped and honked in his memory. ”It’s very lonely without him. He used to say, Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be. People now ask, ‘When are you going to retire?’ But I say, What’s the sense of retiring if there’s nothing to go home to? So, as long as I can do it, I’m going to continue, with the help of God.”

Cathy grew up on 67th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues with five siblings, two of whom have since passed away. She lost both of her parents by the time she was just 15 years old, and her older cousin prevented them from getting split up in foster care by becoming their legal guardian. After graduating from Our Lady of Perpetual Help business high school at age 17, she began work- ing in the Security Index at the FBI. Before computerized databases, her department would diligently keep track, on paper index cards, people whom the bureau believed to be a threat to national security. Even back then, in 1963, she was a guardian angel! She worked at the FBI for 9 years. “I left the FBI to have my son. I didn’t want to leave the baby with somebody else. That’s what they do today, and it bothers me because that is a very important time in their life growing up.” She shares, “Today, you see a lot of these kids…maybe they are in second or third grade walking home by themselves, that’s my main reason for coming up here, that’s why I took the job, to keep them safe.”

Cathy is pleased to give a friendly whistle warning to drivers reminding them to stop texting while behind the wheel. “It’s different now, more people are talking on their phones, there’s a lot more traffic now than there was 35 years ago. But I do a lot of praying. I pray when I go out, and I pray when I come back and thank God that I made it and that all the kids made it home safely and to school.” She continues with such sincerity, “I love kids! Their faces are so angelic and they’re so timid and shy, but then they open up once you start joking with them. I love it when they call me Ms. Cathy, it makes me feel like I’m somebody.”

On her time off in the summers, she spends time playing with her grandchildren in Staten Island, Tiernan, 16, Declan, 12, Aidan, 10, and Dylan, 4. “I love them. Plus, they have central A/C. I don’t have A/C in my 4th floor walk-up apartment near Astoria Park; the walls are too old to hold the electricity!”

What will she miss the most when and if she ever retires? “I love when the parents come up to me now and they introduce me to their children, and they explain to them that I crossed their parent(s) at that same age. It brings tears to my eyes; that’s an honor for me.” For kicks, I show Cathy a photo of my friend Carolyn Zweben, a 1987 alumni from Immac, to see if Cathy remembers her from 35 years ago. “I remember her, her brother and her mom. Her mom decorated eggshell ornaments with beautifully colored sequins for me at Christmastime.”

I am struck with admiration at how precious Cathy holds this job and its memories of whom she’s touched along the way. Later I contacted Carolyn who blushed over the phone that Cathy remembered her and her family, “Cathy helped a lot of kids whose parents were working after school or whose parents were separated. She helped them get home safely…at least from Pizza Palace to Genovese (now CVS) she was my safe bridge home.”

Cathy Grey will also be honored at the NYCPD on June 21. She will be awarded a certificate, and receive a pin with three gems on it, each representing the three decades she’s been a ”Crossing Guardian Angel.”

Jill Parshley-Cardillo is a freelance writer; you can read more of her work at jillparshley.blogspot.com

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