'Stop Sign James'

​When Eastover Elementary and Barringer Academic Center students walk to school the first thing they see is a bright yellow vest, a big red stop sign and a warm smile. All three belong to James Gaither, the crossing guard at both schools. Now 82, he has served students for 10 years, never missing a day.

Gaither and his wife Frances both pursued things they enjoyed after retirement. His wife, who retired in 1992 as a teacher assistant, became a crossing guard. Gaither worked in packaging and distribution for the Mead Corp. before retiring in 2001. He began to work in the insurance industry part-time and later joined his wife as a crossing guard.

"She was not much of a morning person," Gaither said with a laugh. "I decided to train as a crossing guard to help her out. When, for health reasons, she could no longer do it, I continued. I loved being around the parents and students."

Gaither wakes up at 4:30 a.m., has a cup of coffee, reads his newspaper and drives to the schools each morning, rain or shine, to ensure students arrive safely. He knows parents, students and staff by name and always has a kind word for all.

"James is a gift to our school," said Eastover parent Leesa Clardy. "He has known my children since my son was 3 and my daughter was 5. My son affectionately calls Mr. Gaither Stop Sign James."

Clardy said Gaither's friendly and humble nature has a positive impact on everyone. A couple of years ago, when the school designated a day for students to dress like their favorite teachers her daughter Julia dressed like Gaither.

"When I saw Julia with her yellow vest and a stop sign, it pulled the bottom right from under me. It touched my heart so much," said Gaither. "Her mom told me she didn't want to be anyone else but me. Ms. Clardy took a picture of us with her brother and had it made into a notebook for me. I always keep my notes in it."

Barringer principal Stephanie Range said Gaither epitomizes the kind of person she wants her students to become.

"Every day, he starts our students off right with a huge smile, telling them how excited he is to see them," said Range. "At the end of the day, he is there telling them to have a great night and sending them off with a final burst of love. No matter how my day has been, James always puts me in a great frame of mind. His warmth and kindness just emanate in all that he does. He is a blessing to our school community."

He is so beloved he has been nominated to be America's Favorite Crossing Guard. Gaither is one of 55 crossing guards from across the country nominated for the award. If he wins, the schools will receive and split a $500 grant. Regardless of the national outcome, locally Gaither will receive a certificate and pin from Safe Kids Charlotte. Voting for the national award is being conducted at Safekids.org through Jan. 31. Participants can cast one vote, per device, per day.

"The nomination is humbling and I'm thankful," said Gaither. "I do it because the students are like family to me. You don't know what their warm greetings do for me each day. It's more than I can put into words."