To many with whom he interacts, he is known as Charles, or as he has self-coined, "Charles on Charleston." Charles Gater is one of the 28 crossing guards employed by the Palo Alto Police Department to patrol intersections at the beginning and end of each school day.
"I believe in giving the kids something positive, try to brighten their day up because, to me, going to school in a positive frame of mind, you learn more, you get more out of it," Gater said.
Gater is a Cleveland native who has lived in the Bay Area for 30 years. He has worked primarily as a custodian in local school districts, but most recently, he spent two years as the crossing guard at the intersection of Nelson Drive and East Charleston Road. He served students from nearby Herbert Hoover Elementary and Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle schools.
"I was working at Foothill College, and I retired as a custodian. And I didn't have enough to do, so I decided I'd do this for a little bit, just to get out the house," Gater said. Being a crossing guard "gave me the chance to ... interact with the kids. ... I just take to them."
Despite his short tenure as a guard, Gater has left his mark. He greets every person who walks across his intersection, high-fiving the students and asking them how they're doing. Gater knows many of the students and their parents by name.
"He's just the sweetest guy, a jolly good guy," said Lynn Grant, a parent. Grant created retirement posters for students to sign in honor of Gater.
Gater said he enjoys his interactions with students because they're so personal and engaging.
"It's not the money. Here it's about people, you know, and what can I give back to the people to make them feel better every day," Gater said. "That to me is very important."
Gater is moving to Atlanta, Ga., with his wife at the end of the year for financial reasons and to be closer to family. But he still holds a special place in his heart for the kids he has looked after and gotten to know these last few years.
"I love these kids, I really do. I really got attached to them," Gater said. "They say I'm good for them, but they're also good for me because it's therapeutic for me. It gives me a chance to do what I do naturally, to be around people and talk. That's what I like to do."