School crossing guard puts smile on everyone's face
CHAMPAIGN – No one's allowed to be grumpy on this street corner, not even on a wet, dreary school day.
Crossing guard Erma Tyler, who has faced her share of heartache with a rock-solid faith, spreads a little cheer every morning to even the most reluctant South Side student.
"How you doin' this morning?" she'll call out from her spot at New and John streets. Or, "You have a blessed day."
On Halloween, and just about any other holiday, she hands out candy, pencils, gum and other treats to students and their siblings. She even remembers their birthdays.
"It's such a blessing," says Beverly Thomas, whose son, Daniel, 8, views "Miss Erma" like a grandmother. "Sometimes we're hurrying to school or we're not in the best of moods. And here's this little ray of sunshine who takes the time to speak and smile and seems like she's there for you."
Tyler, 70, took the job five years ago to keep herself busy. She and her late husband, Joe, had both retired, and "the house was not that big."
Then, when he dropped dead of a heart attack in January, she found herself with too much time on her hands in the quiet house on Tremont Street in Urbana.
So this year she signed up as a lunchroom aide at South Side, too, where she delights in the kindergartners who run up to show her what they're eating.
"I love to be around children," she says. "It fills out my day."
She has spent a lifetime reaching out to others, whether it was taking in children who didn't have a family, working a graveyard shift to provide for her two kids or caring for dying friends.
"Her whole life she always gave," says daughter Rochelle Garcia of Atlanta, who talks to her mother several times a day.
In grade school, Rochelle had a close friend who came over every day after school. When the girl got sick, Rochelle and her mom went to visit her and found her sleeping on an army cot in a shabby house. The girl's mother had died, and her absentee father gave his three kids just $25 a week for food.
Tyler went out and bought the girl a bedroom set and became her surrogate mom. When the girl became pregnant at 16, she asked Tyler to raise her son. The Tylers brought the baby home and treated him as their own until he went to live with his mother at age 14. Then they took out a loan on a trailer and bought furniture and a used car to get them started.
"I figured she made a mistake, and I wanted to give her a chance," Tyler says. "They're just like my children."
Tyler visits Clark Lindsey Village twice a week to see a friend who suffered a stroke and other residents who have gotten to know her. At Canaan Baptist Church, she is involved in prayer groups and the Mothers Board, which advises young girls on "what a lady should be like."
Her faith has carried her through difficult times these last 18 months. Her mother died in May 2006, her godmother the month before that and her stepfather the following September.
After Joe died, "I said, 'Lord, what are you trying to tell me?' " Tyler says, wearing a sweatshirt with the Serenity prayer.
She also lost several friends last year. When a friend battled breast cancer, Tyler cooked her vegetables to improve her diet. As another lay dying from pancreatic cancer, Tyler sat by her side day after day – as she has done for many others.
"I think it's her calling," her daughter says.
Not that Tyler is a pushover, especially as a mom. She was serious about keeping her kids – Rochelle, 48, and son Terry, 47 – in school and out of trouble.
"She knew all of our teachers on a first-name basis," says Terry Tyler, a Southern Illinois University business graduate who works for Alcoa in Tucson, Ariz. "She knew when grades were coming out. There was no, 'I didn't get my report card.' She'd come to the front door and say, 'Where is it?' "
One day Tyler got a phone call from school asking about Rochelle, who had skipped classes for several days. Tyler got home from her 11-to-7 shift at Kraft the next morning and told Rochelle, "I'm going to school with you."
She put on the worst mismatched outfit she could find, smeared lipstick on her face and stuck by her daughter's side all day, making a spectacle of herself. When the bell rang in class, she yelled out in panic. At lunch she offered to share her sandwich with strangers.
Finally Rochelle told her, "I promise you, if you go home, I'll never skip school any more."
The school never had to call again.
If the kids missed curfew or weren't home by the time their mother went to work, she went out looking for them – and almost always found them.
"She used to hunt me down like a hound dog," Rochelle recalls. "I don't know how she did it. She just knew."
Despite her toughness, Tyler made sure her kids had fun. She always threw big birthday parties and got tickets to the Ice Capades, the circus and the Harlem Globetrotters. She never missed Terry's football games, even when it meant sacrificing sleep.
She taught them "if you lived a good, honest life, things would work out. She always believed in prayer, always believed that God makes a way," he said.
This Thanksgiving, Rochelle noticed that her mom's car was having problems. She arranged to have it repaired, and Tyler took it to the dealer. She handed her keys to an employee, who escorted her to a new Lincoln Town Car, courtesy of her children.
Another surprise from the kids – a 60-inch television – dominates Tyler's family room, which is lined with photos of her children and grandchildren.
The Tylers were at home Jan. 26 when, just after dinner, Joe staggered slightly and fell into a chair. When he didn't respond, Erma called 911. Ignoring the pounding of her own heart, she followed the ambulance to the hospital, where doctors told her Joe was dead.
After burying him in Arkansas, Tyler was increasingly short of breath. She consulted a doctor, and tests showed she had suffered a heart attack the day Joe died. She was immediately hospitalized.
During Tyler's recuperation, Thomas and her son delivered a geranium and a card signed by friends at South Side.
Tyler plans to continue working, rain, sleet or shine, "as long as my health holds up." Seeing her families helps her stay upbeat.
And on Wednesday, the last school day before winter break, she'll be ready with her bag of goodies.