Jean Johnson has seen many things in Cherry Hill change and grow from her spot in front of Bret Harte Elementary School over the course of almost 40 years, and from her Carolina Avenue home of more than six decades.
Johnson turned 90 years old on July 3, and was visited shortly thereafter by Ofc. Steve Cornforth – a Harte alumnus – to commemorate the occasion.
Johnson served as a crossing guard at Bret Harte Elementary School from just after its opening in 1968 through 2015, with only a brief interruption to do the same at nearby Horace Mann, ensuring thousands of children traveled between school and home safely.
When The Sun caught up with Johnson at her residence on July 11, three more members of the CHPD – officers Watts, D’Alessio and Jones – along with husband Frank, daughter Donna Srouji, youngest child Rob Johnson and two of his daughters – squeezed into her front room to hear her tell tales of her life and years in service of keeping the district’s children safe.
“I already had two children, Frank and Donna, but I didn’t have Rob yet; (Frank) worked at RCA and he would get laid off periodically, so I said ‘OK, time for me to think about work.’ They needed crossing guards, and they were hiring. So I went down and got signed up. I had to fill these papers out and wait for them to call. They had to check and see if I was honest, didn’t have a criminal background,” Johnson revealed.
“They said, you’ll start on Monday, someone will meet you there and tell you what to do. They had me down at the corner of Queen Anne and Country Club. That was it. I thought someone’s going to come and tell me how to do this … I’m still waiting for someone to come and tell me how to do it!”
Johnson’s uniform at the time was mostly white, including a hat, jacket, pants, as well as a pair of white gloves. She was required to shepherd Harte students three times per day: once in the morning, once at lunchtime and once in the afternoon. Rob grew up watching his mother perform her duties from the back seat of her car.
“After he was born, I said ‘I’ll be home with you, Donna, for lunch now. But that lasted about four weeks, before they said, ‘can you come out and see what you can do because we don’t have a crossing guard, we have to call a policeman,’ and I said ‘if I go back, I can’t promise you anything, but I’ll try.’ So I went back, and everything worked out.”
Harte thought so much of Johnson that the district allowed Rob to attend although their residence was on the west side of Haddonfield-Berlin Road and served by Mann Elementary, because Harte didn’t want to lose such a trusted employee.
Johnson also recalled the unique set of rules regarding Harte students and how they were allowed to spend their lunch time as the neighborhood began to expand.
“As time went on, and the development grew around the school, and parents were working, they had to go into busing … if you had a good reason, your mother and father both worked and there was nobody home, they would give you permission to stay in school for lunch. But if your mother was home, you couldn’t stay in school. Unless you were bused in. Now, everybody stays in school.”
Johnson showed her dedication to her employer in other ways. She worked as a teachers aide at Harte for a time in the 1980s as well as serving as crossing guard, and additionally worked as the Harte PTA treasurer for more than 20 years.
Although she admitted she misses going out each morning, Johnson rests happily in retirement, doting on 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Forever concerned for those who have to trek through all sorts of weather, she capped her reminiscence by dishing out some sage sartorial advice.
“I didn’t mind the weather, don’t mind the snow even if it was up to my knees. As long as you’re dressed properly, you can keep warm. If you go out in fancy, nice looking clothes, like women would wear to the office, you cannot be warm. I had wool slacks, and they were hard to come by and expensive; but if I wore them, I was fine.”