BARBERTON — Oby Perdue knows everybody. And it seems that everybody knows him — at least everyone who walks or drives by the intersection of Fourth Street NW and Brady Avenue.
That's where Perdue is stationed each morning and afternoon as a school crossing guard.
Armed with a bright yellow vest, red stop sign, cheerful personality and an endless stream of witticisms, the 81-year-old Barberton resident spends several hours each day chit chatting with kids, smiling, waving and pointing at drivers, directing traffic and, of course, escorting students safely across the busy street.
"I've got more power than Obama did," Perdue joked on a recent day. "Not to kick my buddy out of the bushes."
Watching him interact with everyone he comes in contact with, it's clear why he was nominated for and named one of America's Favorite Crossing Guards last month in an annual competition held by Safe Kids Worldwide, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to prevent childhood injuries. More than 90,000 votes were cast in an online poll.
Perdue, who has served as a crossing guard for nearly two years, finished third in the contest, earning a $5,000 award for Barberton Middle School. Crossing guards Lyn Woolford of Ashland, Mo., and Sarah Mason of Hagerstown, Md., finished first and second, respectively.
Even though he wasn't first, Perdue feels like he won, especially because of the reaction in the community and the fact that he's now recognized around town. He received a plaque and a special ceremony was held last week at the middle school.
"It reminded me of a kid in a candy store and they say, 'Eat what you want,' and you have no repercussions," he said, explaining how the honor made him feel. "It's been amazing."
Perdue helps usher high school and middle school kids across the street. No student passes by without a personal greeting, fist bump or high-five. He calls many by their first name, often inquiring how they are doing.
"We all need somebody to say, 'Hey, how was your day?'" Perdue said.
Perdue, who's been married for 58 years to his wife, Barbara, grew up in Barberton. He worked as an aircraft mechanic with the U.S. Air Force, then as a locksmith in California before retiring and returning to the Magic City. He served as a foster grandparent for several years before trying his hand as a crossing guard.
Many of the students are appreciative of his infectious attitude. Some even stick around for awhile to talk with him.
"He's one of the nicest ones," said Marissa Nestor, 17, a junior at Barberton High School. "He's really kind. He cheers everybody up."
Middle school student Anthony Daugherty, 12, agreed.
"In the morning, he always jokes around with us," he said as he handed Perdue a lollipop. "It's funny."
Perdue said he's become protective of the students.
"I'm like a mother hen," he said. "I watch the kids like a hawk."
Perdue has a remarkable gift of connecting with people. In the morning, he sets the tone for the day for students because it's impossible to be in a bad mood around him. If one of the kids has a bad day at school, there he is in the afternoon with a kind word and a smile.
"I always say I love Barberton and he epitomizes everything about Barberton and our family," Superintendent Jeffrey Ramnytz said. "He's that smiling face."
The school district plans to use the money from the Safe Kids Worldwide contest to buy badges and coats and hats in the school colors of purple and white for crossing guards. Perdue also insisted that the district buy hats and gloves for the crossing guards to hand out to students who don't have any, Ramnytz said.
"He's always giving back to the community and we love him to death," he said.
But students aren't the only ones impacted. Perdue waves, points and shouts at drivers — whether he knows them or not. Most wave back, honk or at the very least smile. It's not unheard of that people drive out of their way just to receive a friendly wave from him.
"I like that lady," he said, pointing to a woman in a blue sport utility vehicle. "She does this …"
Then he nods.
On a recent day, he bowed to one of the teachers driving by. Another man leaned out his window and shouted that he had spotted Perdue out in the rain the other day and even a chicken with its small brain knows to get out of bad weather.
"Not this one," Perdue yelled back, laughing.
As a Mercedes-Benz passed through the intersection, Perdue shook his head. The man had a cellphone pressed to his ear and was busy talking.
"That's one thing I have never liked — talking on the phone and driving," Perdue said. "You can chew gum and talk, but you're not very good at it. But to drive and talk?"
Asked where he got the name Oby, he said he's a junior. He disliked the name as a child.
"It's odd," he said. "I don't like odd things. I wanted to be a Frank or George or Robert. I accepted it, though."
He expects to continue serving as a crossing guard.
"As long as the creek don't rise I'm going to do it as long as I can," he said.
"Any creek. Any creek," he said. "You ever heard the saying, 'How does it go?' It doesn't go until you push it. If you don't push it, it don't go."
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.