2015-01-16 / Front Page

‘She just makes me happy’

Great Person, Michelle Danois
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Michelle Danois, winner of the Sentry’s annual “Great Person” award, goes about her duties on Jan. 9 as a school crossing guard stationed at the corner of Thompson and Pillsbury streets in South Portland, working with her customary smile. (Duke Harrington photos) Michelle Danois, winner of the Sentry’s annual “Great Person” award, goes about her duties on Jan. 9 as a school crossing guard stationed at the corner of Thompson and Pillsbury streets in South Portland, working with her customary smile. (Duke Harrington photos) SOUTH PORTLAND — It was 24 degrees on Friday, Jan. 9 and, as such, almost anyone might have forgiven Michelle Danois for lingering in her car, jumping out to tend to her duties as a school crossing guard only at the last possible moment, as children from Small Elementary School approached the intersection at Thompson and Pillsbury Streets.

But instead, despite having just come from being out in the elements at Mahoney Middle School, and at both locations before school started that morning, Danois was out of her car almost 20 minutes before the first children arrived at her station, to pass briefly under her care on their way from home. From a plastic shopping bag Danois produced an assortment of colored pinwheels, bobbleheads and Kewpie dolls, and quickly set about decorating a stone wall that rings the front lawn of a building on the corner.

The homeowners have given Danois permission to use the wall, and, from long experience, she expertly found the perfect cranny in which to lodge each pinwheel, stopping to rub her hands together for warmth only occasionally.

Some of the pinwheels, or the occasional solar-powered item, are there to prompt science-related discussions with her youthful charges. Others serve as a gateway to one of Danois’ many patented knock-knock jokes. Still, others are there just for the fun of it.

“It just makes the children happy, so that’s the reason for it,” she said. “As they come and they go, it kind of brightens them.”

That dedication to bringing moments of joy even to the simple act of crossing the street is what got Danois nominated for the Sentry’s annual Great Person Award, and why she handily won the annual voting last week.

Michelle Danois, left, receives a bouquet of flowers and a hot cup of coffee from Neve Littlefield, 4, at the corner of Thompson and Pillsbury Streets. (Duke Harrington photo) Michelle Danois, left, receives a bouquet of flowers and a hot cup of coffee from Neve Littlefield, 4, at the corner of Thompson and Pillsbury Streets. (Duke Harrington photo) “Michelle is extremely dedicated to serving our community and keeping our children safe on a daily basis,” wrote Sawyer Street resident Catherine Dorrington, who nominated Danois. “She never misses a day of duty, no matter the weather conditions. She takes her responsibilities very seriously, but does so with a smile and a knock-knock joke.”

On Friday, while Danois was setting up her wall of treasures, Angela Littlefield pulled up with her daughter Neve, age 4. Littlefield’s older daughter attends Small School and, on warmer days, all three make the walk to and from the building, and interact with Danois along the way for a brief, but memorable moment.

After hearing that morning that Danois had won the Great Person vote, it was Neve, Littlefield said, who asked if she could present the crossing guard with a bouquet of flowers. It was, said the little girl, a gesture aimed at returning a bit of the sunshine Danois beams every day. Littlefield, meanwhile, brought a hot cup of coffee, purchased at the Mill Creek Tim Horton’s, a frequent haunt of Danois, given that she lives nearby on North Richland Street.

“It’s funny,” Littlefield said. “They know her there — they know and love her like everyone does — and they knew just exactly how she takes it.

“I think she definitely deserves it,” said Littlefield, perhaps referring as much to the steaming coffee on a bitterly cold day as to the Great Person award. “She goes above and beyond. She doesn’t just walk them across the street. She usually has a bunch of things to make them smile, whether it’s things on the rocks or a joke. And she knows all their names. She’s just very personable.”

Danois, 64, is a South Portland native, having grown up in Knightville during the 1950s when her mother’s beauty shop stood next to “three beer parlors.”

“As kids, we’d collect the change off the sidewalks that fell out of people’s pockets when they were drunk,” said Danois, with a laugh.

Despite the bars, Knightville was a family friendly environment, Danois said, recalling a mixed-used utopia that was part bustling shopping district, part beehive of residential activity, where “everyone treated each other with respect.”

“We had a cop on the beat who was amazing. He was like a father to a lot of us,” recalled Danois, in between guided crosses of the intersection, with her flashing STOP sign held high.

“I will tall you, it does take a village to raise kids,” she said, upon returning to the street corner. “Because a lot of us were single-parent kids. Certainly, I was. If it hadn’t been for the seniors that would be in the windows all the time, looking out, who knows what trouble I might have got into.

“They’d call my mum and say, ‘Rita, do you know where Michelle is?’” said Danois, reliving a long-ago moment. “Well, my mum, she’d be up to her elbows in someone’s hair, or something, and she’d just sigh and say, ‘Where is she now?’

“She’s headed over to Fox’s lumber yard,’ they might say, and my mum would just be like, pfffttt,” said Danois, imitating an exasperated exhalation from her busy mother.

Danois was, she admits, “a hyper child” who, when held to home base, would run and skid on her knees on cut hair across the floor of her mother’s shop, then get up and do it again and again, ad infinitum. But not all neighbors were spies spoiling an adventurous girl’s fun. Others were as much the wellsprings of knowledge as that beat cop had been a father figure. One neighbor was Bruce Vaughn, who lived with his wife over Rita’s Beauty Shop.

“His wife was kind of stern,” Danois said. “She was ‘Mrs. Vaughn,’ but he was ‘Brucie.’ There was a real distinction.

“He really helped me get thorough elementary school,” Danois said. “I had stayed back in second grade and he would take out all of his screws and nuts and bolts and sit me down at his table, and we’d start doing math. Two or three days a week after school he would do that, until about 5 o’clock. He was so patient with me, as he’d help me count out each one and say, ‘Take your time. You can take your time.’ He would also read to me, because I always had some trouble with words and letters.”

The tutoring sessions worked and Danois eventually settled down enough to focus and make her way through school, graduating from South Portland High in 1969. She then went on to the University of Maine at Presque Isle where, after first flirting with a career in nursing, or social work, she turned to a degree in physical education.

“If I hadn’t had these super-wonderful older people in my life, things could have been a lot worse for me,” Danois said. “Who knows if I ever even would have been accepted into college.”

Ultimately, Danois would end up teaching physical education and health for nearly 40 years, the last 23 at Yarmouth Elementary. She’s spent the three and a half years since her retirement working as a school crossing guard and in the South Portland Police Department’s VIPs (Volunteers in Police Service) program.

“To be able to come back here after retirement and to have a chance to be able to do something here in my own town, it’s fun. It’s wonderful,” she said, as she occasionally put her VIPs training to use directing drivers, in addition to guiding students.

An only child with no children of her own — save for eight god children, three dating to her younger days as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West Indies— Danois now does her best to emulate the Knightville and Willard seniors she knew from her youth. Even without realizing she’s consciously continuing a tradition of sorts, parents praise Danois’ cheerful, but watchful disposition.

“She’s awesome,” said Jessica Williams, a mother of two children in fifth and second grade, as she crossed the street. “She’s just an amazing presence. She knows all the kids’ names and looks out for everybody and everything. That’s really important to me and I don’t think I ever realized how important that was until having her. It’s great.”

“She absolutely should get personof the-year,” said Abbie Turner, as she crossed Pillsbury Street with her children, Phoebe, 3 months, and Kai, 7.

“She brings joy to people every single day,” Turner said. “Everyone looks forward to seeing her. She’s like a little joy-gifter.”

“She’s just so nice,” Kai agreed. “She celebrates different days for us and gives us things off her wall on our birthdays, or pencils and erasers on the first day of school. She tells us jokes and stuff. She just makes me smile.”

And back at the intersection, Danois continued her work, as the crowd began to thin. She could have knocked off then, but, as always, stayed on until it was past 4:30 p.m., just in case any straggler came from some after-school activity.

Of all the people who crossed the Willard Square intersection on Friday, Danois may have been the only one who did not check her own name in the Great Person contest. There were three other nominees this year and, knowing them all and thinking them more worthy than herself, Danois admits she photocopied the ballot from the paper, voting for each of the others, multiple times.

After all, she said, she does not live her life as she does for awards or recognition and she is, she stresses, “just one of many, many ‘Great People’ in South Portland.”

“It’s been fun for me to do the crossing guard work because it was on my bucket list when I retired, as a way to stay active and involved with kids,” Danois said. “But really, it’s not about me. It’s been so much fun because this is such a great and wonderful community.”

Return to top