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For the love of Charlie

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http://www.mcall.com/news/local/bethleh ... hlehem-hed

Retired crossing guard, battling cancer, is honored by his Bethlehem community.

By Steve Esack Of The Morning Call

Charles W. Schaffner has not been himself lately.

He doesn't want to get dressed in the morning. He doesn't want to eat. He doesn't want to go outside. He doesn't believe in God anymore.

Terminal lung cancer caused it all. Above all else, it cost him his true passion: holding a stop sign and protecting children morning, noon and afternoon at a Bethlehem intersection.

But on Wednesday, 22 days shy of his 79th birthday, Schaffner found a will to fight his asbestosis diagnosis when students, teachers, parents, administrators, police officers and Mayor John Callahan showed him how much ''Charlie'' means to Governor Wolf Elementary School and the city. They dedicated the intersection of Potstone and Shakespeare roads ''Charlie's Corner'' in a surprise ceremony that brought the retired crossing guard and others to tears.

''Thank you very, very much,'' Schaffner said in an emotion-choked voice while two of his sons steadied him at the podium. ''I love you.''

With that, Schaffner moved his walker and sat down next to his wife of 57 years, Phyllis, to admire the green and white sidewalk stencil that will forever bear his name across from the school and outside James Yasso's house. Then Schaffner smiled, winked and pointed an index finger at the 450 students before him.

''When my wife and I bought this house, Charlie was probably the first person we met,'' Yasso said. ''He's a terrific guy, and when his son came to us we were more than happy to oblige. I'm surprised how many people are here.''

Not when you consider that Schaffner — a lifelong Bethlehem resident with seven children, 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren — had been a crossing guard since retiring from Fritz Home Heating in 1991. In those years, both at Governor Wolf and Donegan Elementary School, he has guided thousands of students through traffic, corrected his share of parents who did not use the crosswalk, stitched countless plastic bookmarks and distributed loads of candy canes and lollipops at Christmas.

He was diagnosed about 11/2 months ago with cancer, and probably will not be able to finish this year's Christmas gifts for students and teachers.

''He was talking about dying,'' said Schaffner's son, Dwight Schaffner, a Bethlehem police officer who organized the event. ''I hope this will help him, but it's not really why I did it. He just loves the kids, and they love him.''

That love has been apparent since students and parents began to notice that Charlie was missing. As word spread of his illness, cards and gifts started arriving at the Schaffners' home and at the hospital.

Wednesday was a visual and auditory display of that love. Governor Wolf's kindergartners through fifth-graders sat in Butztown Road, blocked off by police cruisers, chanting ''Charlie, Charlie.'' They held stop signs, made of construction paper and sticks, that read ''Get well soon'' and ''We miss you.'' The East Hills Middle School band, bused in for the occasion, played ''Great Balls of Fire'' and ''The Star-Spangled Banner.'' And parents wiped away tears.

The band and chants quieted down when Schaffner put a finger to his lips so the mayor could begin a proclamation that began ''Whereas…''

''I was blown away by the enthusiasm,'' Callahan said later. ''I'll never forget the look on Charlie's face when he got out of the car. It was quite a tribute.''

Jodi Sponchiado has only been Governor Wolf's principal since January. In just three months, she learned what Schaffner means to her staff and students.

''He has become a member of the Governor Wolf family,'' Sponchiado said. ''He's so well-loved and respected.''

Lt. David Kravatz, head of Bethlehem Police Department's traffic division, said Schaffner rarely missed a day, and if he had a doctor's appointment he worked at least some of his three-part shift: 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., and 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

''No one wants to be out standing out in snow,'' Kravatz said, ''and there was a dedicated individual who took his job seriously.''

For six years, fifth-graders Emilee Strange and Rylie Haas have come to rely on Schaffner's presence, kind words and hugs. Not seeing him every day will hurt, they said.

''There's like 400 kids in the school and he knew almost all their names,'' Rylie, 11, said.

''When I first heard he got sick, I got scared,'' Emilee, 11, said. ''I was really upset. He wouldn't be coming back.''

Although he knows he will never work as a crossing guard again, Schaffner said, he will fight to keep living.

''I'm very happy. I love the kids. I love the teachers,'' Schaffner said. ''I want to continue as long as I can. I'll get my strength and get back out. I miss the kids.''

steve.esack@mcall.com 610-861-3619

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