Later this month, many people working in downtown St. Paul will probably pause in their midmorning tasks and wonder, “What’s that noise?”
They’ll hear the thunder of drums and the blare of brass instruments, tramping feet and chanting voices. They’ll look out their windows and see hundreds of kids marching down the street, carrying banners.
Oh, right, it’s May. Time for the school safety patrol parade.
For nearly 100 years, at the end of every school year, this is how the city has thanked kids who have stood on street corners in all kinds of weather, serving as crossing guards to keep their fellow students safe.
St. Paul is the home of one of the nation’s first school safety patrol programs, and the May 14 parade, the 98th Annual St. Paul School Patrol Parade and Celebration, is one of the oldest school patrol parades still going.
The need to keep kids safe as they walked to school arose in the early 20th century, when car ownership and traffic increased, according to a Minnesota Historical Society article.
Sister Carmela Hanggi, principal of the St. Paul Cathedral School, was an early champion of the idea of having kids direct traffic and pedestrians. It was first tried in 1921, when students from the Catholic school used a black and yellow stop sign to halt vehicles at Summit Avenue and Kellogg Boulevard to allow younger students to cross the street.
In a display case at the St. Paul police headquarters, there’s a mannequin dressed in habit to represent the event and the forward-thinking Sister Hanggi.
Soon, the St. Paul police were pitching in to train hundreds of students in public and private schools citywide. By 1924, schools in Minneapolis and other towns around the state adopted school patrols. The program went nationwide with the help of the Automobile Association of America (AAA).
In the early years, school patrol members were outfitted with leather Sam Browne belts and star-shaped metal badges. Some also got a snappy peaked hat or even a cape to wear while on duty.
“It made you feel important. Younger kids looked up to you,” said Kathleen Weyandt, program assistant at St. Paul Public Schools and a school patrol veteran from Chelsea Heights Elementary School in St. Paul. “We had bright orange ponchos if it was raining. Those were cool, too.”
Over time, the gear evolved into the more practical high-visibility vests and flags on poles. But the sense of responsibility remains the same now as it was during the Roaring ’20s.
“This was about leadership and protocol and structure and being part of a group,” said Kevin Burns, St. Paul Public Schools communications director and retired school patrol lieutenant at St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul. “This was grown-up stuff for someone like me.”
In St. Paul, the reward for participants has always been the chance to march in a parade. School patrol members got to take the day off from school. For many years, after parading downtown, they were treated to a picnic at Como Park.
“We practiced marching. We practiced making sure the steps were in alignment,” Burns said of his school patrol parades in the late 1960s. He said his school patrol group also turned their heads at the command “Eyes right!” to acknowledge the reviewing stand while marching. “That was our signature move at the time,” he said.
School patrols used to march in downtown Minneapolis, too, going down Nicollet Avenue before picnicking at Minnehaha Park. There was even a national school patrol parade down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., which lasted six hours and drew thousands of participants from around the country.
Instead of parade and picnic, Minneapolis now has a school patrol appreciation day at Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America.
But in tradition-bound St. Paul, they still like to march.
Under the gaze of proud parents and office workers looking for an excuse to take a break from work, about 800 fifth- to eighth-grade patrollers, accompanied by high school and middle school bands, will march down 5th Street from Rice Park to CHS Field starting at 10:30 a.m. on May 14. Then the kids will be treated to a Saints ballgame.
“It’s such a big tradition,” Weyandt said. “It’s near and dear to a lot of people’s hearts.”