Nov 19, 2023
Stu Pospisil: For more than 100 years, students helped protect others through Safety Patrol
Safety Patrol kids from Bancroft Elementary School walk away from their duty station at 10th and Bancroft Streets and towards school on Oct. 2, 1998. Dressed for the inclement morning, from left to
Safety Patrol kids from Bancroft Elementary School walk away from their duty station at 10th and Bancroft Streets and towards school on Oct. 2, 1998. Dressed for the inclement morning, from left to right, Andrew Prociw 11, James Gomez 11, and Anthony Driscoll 11.
If you’re as young as a fifth-grader, you likely have been on Safety Patrol in grade school.
The belt, the badge, the responsibility. OK, probably not as much responsibility these days when it comes to traffic control. Liability and safety concerns, you know.
But since the 1910s across the nation, millions of fifth- to eighth-graders, those who were the oldest in their grade schools, have served to protect their classmates and younger students at the start and end of the school day.
Omaha was among the earliest to start a Safety Patrol program. Not the first. Who started ours is in question, too.
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Credit for the first Safety Patrol in the U.S. differs by the source. Chicago; Newark, New Jersey; St. Paul, Minnesota often are cited. AAA started its participation in 1920. But based on newspaper archives, New York City in 1913 would have the best — and previously unmade — claim. Public School No. 159 in Brooklyn was the city’s first, which stemmed from the children’s safety crusade of the American Museum of Safety.
As in New York City, Omaha was seeing rapid growth in vehicular traffic. More cars, faster speeds. On one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, 24th Street, was — and is — Kellom Elementary.
In the 1920-21 school year, Boy Scout Troop 62 formed Omaha’s first schoolboy safety patrol on record at Kellom. Scouts Robert Christian, Sam Zager and Max Reikes organized it after Alfred Christian, Robert’s brother, was hit by a car.
Safety Patrol officers Jimmy Barry, 13 and Jane Egan, 12, both of Omaha on Nov. 26, 1953.
The patrol, The World-Herald wrote in January 1921, included 18 of the largest boys at Kellom who guarded the nearby intersections at dismissal times — at lunch and after school. “The problem is to keep the children on the sidewalk and to permit them to cross only at intersections,” were new school principal E.D. Gepson’s instructions to the patrol. Armed with Boy Scout flags, the patrol lined the sidewalks to the perimeters of the school grounds.
Oh, they had another duty. Keep the kids from sliding down a steep bank on the east side of the school building.
Kellom’s patrol evidently didn’t stay together. But there were other efforts, including one at Benson Central grade school (63nd and Maple Streets) mentioned in the Benson Times weekly in November 1923, before Omaha’s schools, public and parochial, went all-in for safety patrols.
How it happened is debatable.
In 1932, The World-Herald wrote that Police Commissioner Henry W. Dunn in 1923 convened a committee, said to be in the wake of a 6-year-old girl’s death in a car-pedestrian accident in front of old Farnam School (2915 Farnam St.). Others at the meeting were George Carey, who headed the safety council of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, police administrators Michael Dempsey, John Pszanowski, Charles Payne and the police reporters of The World-Herald, the Bee and the Daily News. Carey was said to have suggested a boys’ safety patrol.
In 1951, The World-Herald credited Marie Wetzel, the principal at Farnam School, for assigning six boys to patrol duty after the 1923 fatality. Others who have been credited with the idea have been Payne, the police captain who headed the traffic bureau, and Bert LeBron, a civic leader said to have spun it off from heading a group of volunteer adult traffic officers.
A School Safety Patrol badge from the exhibit “Omaha Police: Answering the Call since 1857” at the Durham Museum in 2017.
But the correct year was 1924, not 1923. While Wetzel and Farnam School were principal figures in the safety patrol movement, the idea may have germinated within the Omaha Public Schools by assistant superintendent Belle Ryan.
In the Oct. 3, 1924, World-Herald, Ryan said the 52 elementary schools in OPS were being taught “safety-first” methods on streets, walks and playgrounds.
“Farnam School yesterday gave a demonstration of the practical manner in which they are ‘putting over’ ideas in regard to traffic,” the newspaper reported. Knickers-wearing Merlin Petersen, 12, and Henry Dyke, 13, were on duty along Farnam Street a block apart before and after school and at the end of lunch hour. Dunn, the police commissioner, had given them genuine traffic cop whistles. One blast, pedestrians may cross. Two blasts, wheeled traffic must stop.
Said Wetzel: “Our traffic officers are so zealous that they even report teachers if they should happen to forget instructions.”
Ray Ecklund was another of the original Farnam patrol boys. He said in 1973 that he had been hit by a car from behind. He was briefly unconscious on the pavement. His mouth ran red and adults ran to his aid. “They all thought I was bleeding from the mouth but no one knew I had a mouthful of red candy when the car hit me.”
Ten schools had safety patrols the following year. The third year, all schools had them under the watch of Pszanowski, Payne and George W. Allen, a police captain.
Orville Rodgers keeps his feet warm and dry by wearing galoshes while on Safety Patrol on Feb. 23, 1978.
Omaha in 1929 started using the Sam Browne belt (named for the British Indian Army general who invented it) with a supporting strap that passed over the right shoulder. The Omaha Auto Club, the forerunner of AAA Nebraska, purchased nearly 1,500 belts.
“The safety of the Omaha school children depends entirely upon our school boys’ safety patrol and without it, the police department would be confronted with a grave traffic problem,” Police Commissioner John Hopkins said in the 1932 article. He arranged perks such as free admission to all football games in the city. Through the years, Safety Patrol members were given days at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Peony Park and admission to Omaha Royals and, imagine this now, College World Series games.
The police department gave medals for unusual devotion to duty and bravery. The first two went to Benson West’s Jack Knutson in 1929 and Edwin Riggs at Howard Kennedy in 1932. Knutson every day carried a physically challenged boy from the Hattie B. Munroe Home for Convalescent Children across from the school on Maple Street. Riggs dashed into 30th Street to snatch a child from the path of an oncoming truck.
In 1930, schools began adding junior fire patrols. It was the outgrowth, the Bee-News reported, of the valor of 10-year-old Paul Griffith, who saved four persons from a fire at his home near 39th and Dodge Streets. City commissioner Roy Towl organized the fire patrol.
Girls could be on outside patrols by the late 1940s. In 1986, the white belts were changed to orange. The World-Herald Goodfellows charity bought the 4,500 belts. Through the years, AAA Nebraska supplied the badges that bore the auto club’s logo.
AAA still sponsors the School Safety Patrol program and celebrated its centennial in 1920. Many schools still have the patrols. Some augment, or have replaced, students with teachers or adults (some paid, others volunteers) on busy-street crossings.
As you pass a school zone during drop-off or pick up, slow down for the kids. Remember when you were the one on Safety Patrol.
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