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Across generations

A fixture for 50 years, guard endears herself to Arlington families

ARLINGTON -- On her first day as a crossing guard at Brackett Elementary School , Julia Morrison dutifully followed instructions to pull the lever at a nearby call box to let the police station know she was at her post.

It wasn't until the firetrucks came screaming up to the Arlington Heights school and children ran covering their ears that the flustered guard realized she had pulled the wrong lever.

Her second day wasn't much better. After watching a strange man lurking on the street, Morrison called the police to report the suspicious behavior. She later found out that the lurking man was an undercover detective. "I thought my first week would be my last," said Morrison. "I thought they'd fire me right there."

That was in 1957.

Fifty years later, at the age of 83, Morrison still staffs the same crosswalk on Eastern Avenue in front of Brackett School. "I love outdoors, love children, and love people," she said. "I've had many jobs throughout my life, and this is the most rewarding one I've ever done."

Over the past five decades Morrison has crossed generation after generation of Brackett children, occupying a special place in the hearts of the school community. She has been a fixture at the post, leaving it only once in 50 years, when the school was torn down and rebuilt in 1998.

Lynne Toomey, 35, remembers Morrison crossing her to school as a little girl. So when her two daughters, Jamie, 8, and Jordan, 6, were old enough to go to school, Toomey said, she was thrilled that they would have the same experience. "When I was a kid, Mrs. Morrison always had candy in her pockets and handed it out to kids who stayed on the white lines," said Toomey. "And it's something she still does today."

It's the same story for Matt Mansfield, whose son attends Brackett. "I went to Brackett in the 1970s, and to find her still here, crossing kids after all this time, it shows a tremendous amount of dedication," said Mansfield. "The other day it was 15 degrees outside -- 15 degrees. My son and I ran from the car into the school and I ran back to the car. Then I turn and see this woman in her 80s standing out in the cold with a big smile on her face. She's amazing."

Martin Thrope , a School Committee member for 14 years, knows Morrison well. Each of his three children -- now ages 26, 22, and 14 -- looked forward to seeing her each day. "She's not just someone out there who directs traffic," said Thrope. "She's an integral part of the community. She knows every kid's name, every one. It's so much more than just a job to her."

In her Summer Street apartment last week, Morrison shrugged off the accolades. The mother of three, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of 11 sat at her kitchen table set with fine china for guests. She repeatedly apologized for "the mess" even though her home was spotless.

Morrison grew up in Arlington with her father and stepmother, after her mother died when she was 3. She attended Arlington High, where she met her husband, Thomas. The two married when she was 21, after World War II. Tom Morrison was a Navy man aboard the USS Lexington . He worked as a shipbuilder in the Charlestown Navy Yard. The couple had been married 39 years when Tom died in 1984.

Morrison said that before becoming a traffic supervisor she worked as an office assistant for an orthopedic surgeon, in a dress department at a local store, as a waitress, and for a brief stint delivering gas bills. But it wasn't until she started helping children cross the street that she said she found her calling. Today, Morrison still wears jet-black eyeliner and bright pink lipstick. Her hair is neatly styled, and elaborate rings sparkle on her manicured fingers. Her navy suit is always pressed and gloves always gleaming white.

Susan Robinson, a Brackett parent who remembers Morrison from her childhood, said Morrison holds a special place in her heart because when she and her four siblings walked to school, the family dog, Chucky, would often follow.

"She should have called the dog catcher," Robinson said, "but she would always bring him to the principal's office and call my mom. He would sit there patiently in the office until my mom came to get him. Mrs. Morrison didn't have to do that, but she did it every time he came to school."

Morrison has served under four principals, four police chiefs, and four patrol officers. Officer David McKenna was Morrison's boss for 23 years. The 60-year-old officer said he first met Morrison when he was 12 years old at a house party his parents were throwing. While he was downstairs listening to records with a group of teenagers -- including Morrison's daughter -- a very cool Mrs. Morrison strode downstairs to introduce herself.

"She shook my hand and said, 'You're such a good boy, David' and then whispered in my ear, 'Stay away from my daughter,' " said McKenna, laughing at the memory. "She's a unique lady all right. Gets right to the point." McKenna said he never worried about Morrison on the job and viewed her and the other traffic supervisors as a second set of eyes and ears around the school for police.

"She always has the kids' safety first in her mind ," McKenna continued. " If Julia thinks that there needs to be more sand down or the streets need to be plowed better she'd pick up the phone and place one call. . . . Sure enough, that would be done right away."

Back in her apartment, Morrison flipped through a photo album of children posed through the decades. She said she crossed state Senator Robert Havern and a nephew of the Japanese emperor. As she turned the laminated pages , Morrison described the children, their families, and where they lived. She paused over only a few and apologized for not remembering their first names. Morrison said she is considering retirement, but hasn't decided if this will be her final year. Although she said she worries more now about ice and slipping than years ago, she can't imagine life without reporting to school each day. Neither can the Brackett community.

"She's an institution," said a Brackett mother, Claire Blumenfeld . "She remembers who every kid is, who every family is. Each and every day she is there, greeting you with those sparking eyes."

Pop-up AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Crossing generations