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Remembering the motorist maestros
Traffic hums along with the help of traffic lights at Prescott Street and Duckworth Street these days.
But there was a time when it wasn’t orchestrated with technology.
A traffic cop from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary was a mainstay at the busy downtown St. John’s intersection for decades, guiding traffic and pedestrians, beginning in the 1950s and continuing until 1996, when the city installed automatic lights. The officers who held the post had their own unique directing styles.
While it’s been more than two decades since an officer stood in that spot, many people still fondly remember the traffic cop, whose fluid and graceful arm movements led to comparisons with maestros.
“It was like (he was conducting) a symphony,” said St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen, who grew up on Prospect Street, not far from the intersection.
“It was something special to watch how they kept the traffic flowing there.”
About six full-time RNC officers regularly manned the intersection. Fred Winsor was the first, followed by Allan Tilley, George Sheppard, Don Harris, Mel Parsons and Frank Miller. It’s been said the succession of traffic cops left an impression of their footprints in the pavement at that spot.
Several other officers, like Bob Shannahan, Steve Wicks, Doug Callahan, late RNC Chief Bob Johnston and current Chief Joe Boland, had stints at it, too, filling in when the full-timers were off.
Miller, the last cop at the intersection, was perhaps the most memorable.
The colourful, outgoing officer, who grew up in Trinity, was widely known for his lively style as he cheerily moved about the intersection, guiding vehicles and pedestrians in the right direction.
“Oh my gosh, I enjoyed it so much. There are a lot of good memories here,” Miller said, standing on the sidewalk at the corner of Prescott and Duckworth, not far from where he stood for a good part of more than 11 years between 1980 and 1991.
He said there was no real training involved and he gave no real thought to his dramatic style.
“I had fun with it. I made it a real workout,” he said, laughing. “That’s just me, I guess. I’m still animated,” the 75-year-old added, waving his arms as he used to do.
“But I tell you, I kept traffic going pretty good.”
Miller said it was sometimes challenging, especially when drivers didn’t use their signal lights — something he was quick to point out to them as they passed by.
“Within a few months being there, I had them all educated,” he said, laughing.
Enduring harsh weather was tough, too.
“I’d have my truck parked right there on the corner,” he said, pointing to the other side of the street, “and I had enough clothes in there for four seasons.”
He’s proud to say he never saw an accident when he directed traffic at the intersection, but there was a near miss when a snowmobile fell out of the back of a pickup truck.
“It came about 12 inches from my foot,” said Miller, holding his two hands apart to show the short distance.
The end of an era — Miller’s last day at the intersection — came on March 30, 1991. Then-premier Clyde Wells came down to mark the occasion.
Miller had signs printed and put them on the poles at the intersection. There was a photo with the words “Gone fishing.”
When Miller retired, he said, he received gifts of everything from a sack of potatoes to pairs of long johns.
Miller’s recollections drew laughter from Mel Parsons, who was standing nearby.
The two agreed to meet this reporter downtown where the city has erected storyboards detailing the history of the traffic cops. They delighted in recalling stories of the old days.
Parsons — who was the traffic cop from 1969 until 1982 — introduced white gloves on the job, in order to make his hand movements more visible.
“Oh, it was the best job you could have ever asked for,” the 74-year-old said, who despite having had ice in his moustache in frigid weather, looked forward to it every day.
“It was a wonderful time. … It was one of the best parts of our history in the force.”
Parsons, a native of Hermitage who retired in 1998, agreed there was no real training, but he had his own technique for keeping traffic flowing at the busy intersection.
“I’d always go, “La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la la,” Parsons sang, waving his arms to the tune of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube Waltz.”
He even inspired a musical, “Traffic Cop,” which was performed at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre.
Parsons said he and his wife got an invitation, but he didn’t realize it was him being depicted or that he’d be recognized by the audience, to tremendous applause.
The traffic cop was a local celebrity in those days, and many people still recognize him, Parsons said.
“It’s unreal. I mean, you’re talking 30 years ago. It doesn’t matter where we go and the people will say, ‘I remember you. Haven’t seen you since you were on Prescott Street,’” he said.
Parsons has many fond memories — like the Christmas card he got from a little girl from New Gower Street, and the twin girls who used to wave at him every morning from the back seat of their parents’ car. Parsons had the pleasure of meeting the twins again years later. He also remembers Burt Wells and Kevin Waddleton, owners of the store at the corner, where Parsons and his colleagues often kept their rain gear and would rest on their breaks.
“There was no Tim Hortons back then like there is now on the (opposite) corner,” he said, laughing. “I wish we had that back then.”
Some believe the art of directing traffic began with Winsor.
Fondly known as “the dancing policeman,” Winsor is remembered for his fancy footwork during his 10-year stint directing traffic in the 1950s and ’60s.
Winsor died in the late 1970s. His son, Fred Winsor Jr., said despite his father’s lively style, he was a private man.
It was years after his passing that he heard about many of his father’s accomplishments, including during the Second World War, where he got his training directing planes.
“Dad would never bring anything up and I’d find things out in the oddest ways,” said Winsor, who found out his father was on the Bismarck when he made an off-hand remark while watching a movie about it with him.
“He was very low key.”
However, his father was well known wherever he went, Winsor said.
“It’s funny, but when I was about 10 or 11, I used to dread to go out anywhere with him because everybody knew him,” he said with a chuckle. “He would always stop and talk to people. …
"But I was always very proud of him. He enjoyed (being a traffic cop).”
When Boland filled in for the full-time traffic cops at the intersection in 1984 and ’85, he says, he wasn’t as skilled as the likes of Winsor, Parsons and Miller.
“I remember it well and I remember how bad I was at it,” Boland said, laughing. “There was a skill to it, but I never learned it.”
“There was a skill to it, but I never learned it.” — RNC Chief Joe Boland
Boland said that as time passed and traffic increased, it became clear that having a traffic cop wasn’t a good idea anymore.
“With the increase in traffic and the challenge it became there, the traffic lights worked better than the rest of us,” he said.
But many people disagree, pointing out that a light system can’t have the discretionary judgment needed to handle the excessive traffic flow during peak times, when stopping on such a steep hill can prove to be unsafe — especially since another busy intersection at Water Street and Prescott Street was just four or five car lengths’ away.
When the automatic lights were installed at the intersection in the 1990s at a cost of $250,000, responsibility for traffic control fell to the city.
According to Telegram reports at the time, a heated debate at city council in 1996 resulted in the city appointing its own traffic control officers to do the job during peak tourist season. Then-deputy mayor Andy Wells was vehemently opposed, estimating it would cost up to $15,000 per officer for the period of June to August.
In sharp contrast to the RNC officers’ uniforms, city traffic staff had to wear orange and yellow safety vests.
The RNC did reinstate the traffic cop free of charge for the summer of 1996 for its 125th anniversary celebrations, as well as for Cabot 500 events in 1997.
Boland said he has spoken with Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary, who has asked the RNC to consider bringing back the traffic cop during the summer as a tourist attraction.
“I don’t know if it’ll happen. We may do it for certain occasions,” Boland said. “But it’s a skill and you just don’t jump in and start directing traffic. For safety reasons, you have to train people to do it to make sure they know what they’re doing.”
If it happens, Miller says he’d be ready, willing and able.
“I’d come back tomorrow if they wanted me to,” he said, laughing. “I’ve still got the uniform and I’ve still got a good set of arms on me. Just say the word.”