When Kattie Eason first stepped onto a Wealthy Street SE corner to serve as a school crossing guard at Henry Elementary School – now Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy -- she was 21 years old.
Our president was Jimmy Carter. Gas cost 60-something cents a gallon. The Dow Jones reached 831. Elvis died of a heart attack. The first Apple computer went on sale. "Star Wars" premiered. And France was still using the guillotine to execute people.
That was 50 years ago. And today, Kattie Eason, who turns 72 in March, still strolls from her home a few blocks to the school where she now is crossing the kids and grandkids -- and even a few great-grandkids -- of those she helped across the street back in 1977.
In that time, she has developed into so much more than a crossing guard, however, as a breathless Sheena Brown will attest: "She's the principal, the assistant principal, the grammy, the cafeteria lady, the substitute teacher; she's everything," says this MLK special education instructor.
Interjects a parent listening in on the testimonial: "We're talkin' about Ms. Beautiful right here," says Aquenda Doyle.
And from somewhere, from everywhere, you hear this: "Oh yes. ... Mmmm-hmmm. ... Uh-huh. ..."
Others at MLK may wield more power or command more money, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone more widely embraced than this woman who for five decades has been calmly standing sentry on behalf of those she calls "my babies," in weather that fluctuates between well below freezing and far beyond torrid.
"I couldn't leave because I keep gettin' more kids that I love," says Kattie (pronounced Katy) Eason. "Then they graduate, and I fall in love with somebody else."
Like little Jaxon Scranton, for instance, who at age 6 is a kindergartener at MLK and greets Eason each weekday after being escorted from his home to the corner by father, Patrick, who works nights.
"If he doesn't see her out there from a block and a half away, he gets concerned," says Jaxon's dad. "Where is she?"
But it's not like Eason to miss. When she does, Earth's axis tilts a bit, and only re-aligns when she returns to the corner of Wealthy at Henry Avenue.
When Jaxon turned a year older this past November, Eason surprised him with a Crayola art set. Patrick was surprised. But not entirely shocked: "The other day, Jaxon was the last one to arrive at the corner," he says. "It was slippery, and he almost fell.
"So she walked him all the way to school."
Possibly arm in arm. Though you can't exactly say so. In recent years, it's become taboo to touch kids as a sign of affection. But 50 years of service gives you secret privileges.
Reared on Work Ethic
Eason moved from the deep South to Grand Rapids as a tot, the daughter of a construction worker and a mother who worked in a convalescent home. She graduated from Central High School here and attended Central Michigan University before marrying at 17 and having three boys and a girl.
While still living with her three sisters and one brother, their father rose each workday at 4 a.m. and expected everyone else in the family to do similarly. It's a habit that continues today, with Eason greeting the pre-dawn to sometimes take in a prayer service conducted by her brother, the Rev. Robert Dean –- a former GRPS board member and state representative who's served more than 30 years as pastor at New Life Church of God in Christ.
Then it's off to the street corner on foot – Eason never learned to drive – to be in place by 7:30 a.m., far ahead of the arrival of her first charge. She'll wave to beeping motorists in between heralding kids across an intersection that is marked by a school crossing sign but boasts no light.
Once, Eason had to toss a kid to the curb to prevent a tragedy, and she's had other close calls due mostly to drivers not paying attention. Read: mobile phones. Eason sighs. "They're just not paying attention."
"We feel safe and protected," says Sharkia Caldwell, an eighth-grader. "And she's really nice," adds classmate Zaionna Love.
Sometimes, just the sound of Eason's voice can soothe.
"It's horrible," fifth-grader Charlisa Garner opined of early morning weather one day earlier this month, as she braved wind-driven snow that flooded her eyeglasses with flakes. But Eason coaxed a smile from the corners of her shivering lips before walking Charlisa and her younger brother John, 9, across the street.
'Energetic' and 'Giving'
Eason made her first dollar babysitting, then tried her hand at factory work before signing on as a paraprofessional with the Grand Rapids Public Schools, a job she performed at Henry-turned-MLK for some 32 years.
She's formally retired from that role, and earns a paycheck now only for her time as a crossing guard for MLK's students, which number nearly 400. She often enters the school each day even before assuming her post -- to brew the first pot of coffee, help set up breakfast fare -- and then sticks around between the first and last school bells to pitch in wherever there's need.
"Two words?" School social worker Glenda Hayden ponders the challenge. "I'd have to say 'energetic' and 'giving.'"
Adds school secretary Theresa Dudley: "I want to be just like her."
Eason shrugs off the compliments with a smile that creases a face her colleagues marvel at because it reflects the countenance of a woman decades younger. Her secret to a youthful appearance, she says, lies in three things: Exercise. Smiling. And "taking care of my skin," upon which "I never use soap." (Psst: She's an Avon rep.)
When at the address on Prince Street SE that Eason shares with husband Marcus, the couple operates an adult foster care home, something they've done for 20 years, and what qualifies as Marcus' full-time job.
In Kattie's spare time, she giggles to admit playing computer games, especially "Hidden Objects" and "Word Search." And she has a compulsion for shoes and boots. Fact: "I own some that I haven't even worn. I just like the look of them." In all, she supposes she owns 100 pair, "maybe more."
Eason figures she'll continue on as a crossing guard as long as her health holds steady. "I don't think I'd be able to sit at home." She's very involved with not only her own church, but several others where she helps direct women's activities.
Outside of losing a childhood friend to a tragedy, and the deaths of an older sister, and a mother who died two years ago at age 102, Eason can't recall many bad days in her life: "My mother had polio and didn't really even have the use of one of her arms, but you wouldn't know it by her attitude. I didn't really realize it until she died, the legacy she left me."
Given a work ethic forged at the knee of both mother and father, Eason hasn't missed many schooldays. Most of her absences were tied to arranging medical appointments and such. When she suffered a spell with some sciatica issues, she was issued a cane. And just took it with her to her post.
Naturally, people are amazed Eason's been at it for as long as she has. "Fifty years she's been standing on that corner," says school health care aide Pauline McGregor. "Fifty years. And she not only crosses those kids, but acts like a mother to them. And it's been a generational thing. Kids and then those kids' kids and so on. And people come up to her and it's like 'You're still here?'"
For Eason, it's not a job, but an opportunity to serve. No child will ever cross her corner twice without a warm coat and boots and mittens and a cap –- expenses for which she is not reimbursed. If it's raining, she'll give some kid the umbrella she'd been using, and goes without.
Her work is also a place to live out her faith. "God is at the center of my life," she says. "You put him first, and everything else falls into place." Of all her young charges, she is non-judgmental, emphasizing that "There are no bad kids. A lot of them just go through things and get frustrated, and you have to understand that."
It's not surprising when she gave this answer to someone wondering what she wanted to receive this Christmas: "I'd like for the world to be a better place."
Her eyes twinkle. "Can't say 'shoes.'"