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Distinguished Dozen: Charlottesville school crossing guard Cox puts eyes on street and feet on pavement

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Kevin Cox, a crossing guard at the intersection of Hazel and East High Streets, poses for a photo on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.

Arriving a little early for his afternoon shift as a city school crossing guard, Kevin Cox uses the minutes to pluck trash from a bush near his perch along busy East High Street.

“Stuff like this drives me crazy,” says Cox, holding a discarded styrofoam cup, “because it breaks down and then goes sailing down to the river and then to the sea.”

This is the same bush that in mid-October became the unplanned and injurious landing zone for a bicyclist intercepted by a driver in a caught-on-camera incident that drew local outrage. It was Cox who witnessed what happened and brought the incident to the attention of law enforcement.

For Cox, 70, watching traffic is not just his job twice a day; it’s an educational mission pursued over three decades with visits to City Council meetings and shoes on the ground. Cox found his latest platform in August when the city said it didn’t have enough drivers to bus all the children to school.

“When the city said they needed crossing guards, I jumped on it,” he says.

Cox says his status as one of Charlottesville’s most visible pedestrians began in 1985 when he was hired as a medical lab technician at the University of Virginia.

“I tried taking the bus, I tried riding a bike, and I tried driving; but they all had disadvantages,” says Cox. “Walking to work was easier for me.”

By the 1990s, Cox’s two-legged commute made him a extra visible. Rain or shine, this man was making a five-mile round-trip journey between his Woolen Mills home to his laboratory near the UVA Corner.

Cox credits his wife, Sarah Pool, who lost all her eyesight through a degenerative condition with helping him ponder the plight of the pedestrian. Yet he hastens to note that he tries to weigh all perspectives.

“I’ve spent years walking— and driving,” he says. “Most drivers are nice people who want to get along.”

Three decades of walking have made Cox something like the late Jane Jacobs, a self-educated urbanist, someone demanding best practices for their city.

“I believe that the physical environment matters to people’s state of mind,” says Cox. “This street contributes to bad attitudes.”

For starters, he notes that East High’s sidewalks often end abruptly. In other places, parking lots from the pre-site-plan era extend all the way to the roadway. Cox says that such factors conspire to send a message to cars they can just steer their way onto private property to speed through.

“It’s ridiculous,” Cox says. “It’s a wasteland for pedestrians.”

Off in the distance, Cox spies a woman struggling on a westward trek with two shopping bags bearing the imprint of discount store Rose’s. He grimaces as he watches her pause to hoist the bags while preparing to navigate past the sidewalk-free brick building owned by AT&T.

“She’s got to deal with that dirt path,” says Cox, shaking his head. “I’m gonna talk to her when she gets up here.”

In a city that recently planned to spend nearly $700,000 for just one stretch of sidewalk (on Stribling Ave.), city government has allocated just $100,000 annually for new sidewalks for the entire city. Cox contends, however, he’s been hearing encouraging words from city officials about getting a sidewalk past AT&T.

“Hello,” he says to woman with the Rose’s bags, “I’m trying to put a sidewalk here.”

“Thanks,” she replies.

Cox’s years of foot commuting have introduced him to many people.

“Hey, Kevin,” says a smiling Carl Hicks, retired from Region Ten and now delivering auto supplies, as he motors into a parking lot with a drop-off.

Next comes John Petro walking down Hazel Street with his two Burnley-Moran schoolchildren, six-year-old Hazel and Jackson. They’re walking home and turn to Cox to bring High Street traffic to a stop.

“We always look forward to seeing Kevin,” says Petro.

Cox says that he tries to use smiles and eye contact with all drivers and that it’s rare to go more than a few minutes without a wave from a motorist.

“That’s what surprises me,” says Cox. “How much positive support I get.”

One supporter is the owner of Charlottesville Glass & Mirror, where Cox typically stands and one of the businesses whose parking lot hugs the street.

“He’s been a real asset,” says company owner Dwight Corle. “His presence has really reduced cut-throughs and made it safer for folks who cross there. He’s just been a great influence.”

Corle says that East High Street is a much safer place than it was before Cox began working as a crossing guare.

“We’re thankful to have him,” says Corle. “My only regret is that I wish he was there eight or ten hours a day.”

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