, Salem, MA

December 21, 2012

Heard Around Town: Rain or shine, a school crossing guard’s last day


---- — SALEM — The weatherman was predicting heavy rains today, but that didn’t scare Rita French.

Rain or shine, the 84-year-old crossing guard planned to be at her post in front of Ziggy’s Donuts at the intersection of Essex and Webb streets.

“As long as it doesn’t snow,” she said. “I don’t like the ice.”

Today is Rita’s last day as a school crossing guard, a post she has held for the past 13 years. For most of that time, she was on Jackson Street near Collins Middle School. An accident precipitated the move to Ziggy’s.

“Somebody almost hit me,” she said, describing how a car came right at her before swerving. She fell backwards trying to avoid the collision and broke her wrist.

Rita has a lot of stories to tell, none better than the one about her name. She is Rita to family and close friends, but Mary French on School Department records and legal documents.

“I always thought my name was Rita and then when I went to get married they didn’t have any such person,” she said, standing yesterday in the cold of Collins Cove. A doctor, or the hospital where she was born, must have put the wrong name on the birth certificate, she surmises.

Rita grew up on Charles Street right behind a fire station. Her husband, Donald, a worker at the A.C. Lawrence leather factory, died almost 40 years ago. She worked for many years as a housekeeper at Salem Hospital.

Rita has loved her years as a crossing guard, helping children stay safe and making friends with little ones. The other day an older girl approached her at Market Basket and said she remembered Rita as the crossing guard who waved at all the children as they drove past in cars.

“I used to love that,” the girl said, “when you waved to me.”

Feline fun

This is a good time to be a homeless cat.

Thanks to a $50,000 in-kind gift from Canyon Creek Ranch pet food, the cat rooms at the Northeast Animal Shelter on Highland Avenue have been totally renovated. There are now large play rooms with walkways, ladders and window perches.

Check it out — and take a kitty home while you’re there.

New campaign

Ward 4 City Councilor Jerry Ryan made a surprise announcement this week at a meeting of the Ward 4/Gallows Hill Neighborhood Association.

After three terms, he’s not running for re-election as Ward 4 councilor.

His fan base was relieved to hear he is not leaving politics. Ryan plans to run for councilor-at-large next year, which should be a wide open race with the departure of Joan Lovely.

New face

The Driscoll administration is going through more changes than the Red Sox.

Among the recent additions is Kristian Hoysradt, the new director of constituent services and special projects.

This should be a snap after his last job. for which he deserved combat pay. He was political director for the Tierney re-election campaign, one of the most bruising in recent memory.

Sail on

A crowd of 150 attended Sail Salem’s terrific fundraiser at Finz restaurant.

The guest speaker, Marblehead native Rich Wilson, signed copies of his book about his hair-raising adventures in the 2008 Vendee Globe, a solo sailing race around the world.

Yes, that is correct. He sailed from France to France all by himself, which raises a few questions. Who steers during bathroom breaks?

In four years, Sail Salem, a nonprofit, has provided sailing lessons to 1,000 youngsters, including many from poor families who have never been out in a sailboat.

They, thank goodness, are content to stay in Salem Harbor.

The event raised more than $12,000.

Caribbean connection

If you happen by the National Park Service Visitor Center, check out some of the writing by students from the Nathaniel Bowditch School.

The work is the culmination of a program with a long title: “Making the Caribbean Connection: Engaging Underserved Latino Youth In Discovering and Telling the Untold Stories of Salem and the Caribbean.” It is a joint effort by the Essex National Heritage Commission, the National Park Service, The House of the Seven Gables and the Salem schools.

In essence, the aim was to connect these kids and their families to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site by having them explore their own roots and the connections between their homelands in the Caribbean and Salem.

One last gift

Far be it from us to tell you what to buy this Christmas, but here’s a gift that gives twice.

For the fourth year in a row, the Plummer Home for Boys has made a holiday CD. These are blues, rock and even reggae Christmas songs by teenage boys from the state’s foster care system.

One song is particularly powerful, a young boy’s rendition of “O Christmas Tree.” Several original songs by kids from the home are sung by Jacyn Tremblay, a professional musician from Danvers.

The CD costs $5 and is available at The Front Street Coffee Shop, Milk & Honey Green Grocer on Church Street, Pamplemousse on the pedestrian mall and the Plummer Home on Winter Island Road. It’s a great stocking stuffer and it supports a great cause.

As we said, it’s the gift that gives twice.

Tom Dalton can be reached at