By Terry Dean
Tony Albachiara sits in his grey, four-door Dodge Durango parked along Harvard near Ridgeland every morning and afternoon near Irving School.
He's been a crossing guard there for six years. Everyone calls him "Mr. Tony." He arrives at around 7:30 to help cross kids and the parents to school, and is there about a quarter to 3 in the afternoon to make sure they cross safely on their way home. That was the case a week and half ago when he stopped an older man who was picking up 9-year-old Charlie Reichert Powell, a fourth-grader at Irving, 1125 S. Cuyler.
It was Charlie's granddad, but Mr. Tony had never met him before. After a polite yet thorough series of questions to the man, Albachiara let them go. Charlie's mom Pegeen so appreciated the extra due diligence that she wrote a letter to his supervisor in "honor of Mr. Tony."
As for Albachiara, he seems to know every kid and parent who crosses his "corner." And he has a story to share about every one of them. Like the child who dashes every morning to Harvard's crosswalk just before the light turns red—Mr. Tony makes sure he doesn't go any further until the light turns green and it's safe to go. And then there's the little girl whose mom pushes her in a little scooter-like stroller—she stops when Mr. Tony holds up his stop sign before zooming away.
An Oak Park resident since 1960, Albachiara, who's married but has no children, loves what he does. He worked for Oak Park's public works department for 27 years before retiring in 1993. He enjoyed retirement but wanted to do something with his time. Becoming a crossing guard, though, had not been in his plans. That changed when he was drafted, so to speak, by Deputy Police Chief Anthony Ambrose to sign up to become a crossing guard. Mr. Tony, a youthful senior citizen, has loved it ever since.
When a new company took over management of the village's crossing guards this summer, Albachiara thought of quitting and eventually did. But he missed working and he missed seeing the kids. Ambrose, who previously oversaw the guards, stepped in again and asked for Albachiara to be rehired. Mr. Tony was back just before the start of the school year, but not on his corner. He was stationed at various corners when needed, including Ridgeland and Washington near Percy Julian Middle School. But he was eventually able to switch with a fellow guard who had been patrolling his Irving corner.
"When I came back, oh the kids welcomed me. Cars and buses were honking their horns," he said while patrolling his corner Monday afternoon, wearing his yellow crossing guard vest and matching gloves, black baseball cap and carrying his stop sign.
Dick Reichert, Charlie's grandfather, is also appreciative of Mr. Tony. The boy's dad usually picks him up but was late this particular day. Reichert, who was visiting from Green Bay, had been staying with his other daughter and was at Irving to pick up his other grandchild. Charlie was in the playground, spotted his granddad and walked with him.
"I didn't know this man from Adam," Albachiara recalled. "He walked to the corner and stopped, and then walked that way near the fence and stopped, and then walked back."
Reichert said he knew what Albachiara was doing and appreciated his polite inquisitiveness.
"I was just really impressed on how he handled it. He wasn't rude or anything. Once he was satisfied, he said OK," said Reichert, speaking to Wednesday Journal by phone Monday from Wisconsin.
One of the questions Albachiara asked was if Reichert was from Green Bay.
Pegeen Reichert Powell said she didn't "even recall talking with him about that," referring to her Wisconsin roots. She assumes he mentally filed that info away from their conversations about football—she often teased him when the Packers beat the Chicago Bears.