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It’s an overcast Monday morning. Drivers are pushing to start their work week. Older students are arriving at Newtown High School in their vehicles, while parents of other children are queuing up to drop off their offspring. School buses are also a large part of the mix of vehicles all being choreographed by one woman with a tight schedule to keep.
She is limping slightly, the result of her dog rushing into her home and tripping her a day earlier. While she isn’t dancing and bouncing as much as usual, the smile is still there.
In return for that smile and the efforts that keep traffic moving into and back out a few of the school parking lots each weekday morning and afternoon, Kat Holick is regularly rewarded with laughs, waves, and even hugs when they can be snuck in.
Men and women wave and unabashedly blow kisses from their vehicles. A few men have even asked her to marry them.
One of the town’s traffic agents, Ms Holick has been a lively and very popular figure for four years, handling a job that appears to be easier than it is.
Depending on the time of day, she is found standing in the center of two of the town’s busiest roadways — Church Hill Road for two shifts each weekday, Berkshire Road for other two. It is Ms Holick’s responsibility to direct traffic into and out of school parking lots and as well as the town’s largest church, and also safely get pedestrians across the same busy roadway.
Ms Holick began working as a traffic agent in October 2013, directing traffic for St Rose churchgoers and parents dropping off and then picking up their children for CCD classes. By December of that year her role had been expanded to include the schools she continues to cover: Newtown High School’s morning and afternoon bus runs, Hawley School’s morning run, and St Rose School’s afternoon run.
“It was probably the coldest winter we’ve had in ages,” she said last week, laughing at the memory. “We were hitting 20 below pretty regularly.”
It took about four months for her dancing to be noticed. She started it as a way to keep warm during those cold winter months, but quickly saw that it was having an unintended effect on most drivers. Her petite frame belies her big personality, and a smile that shines out from under the safety yellow-colored hat she wears in all weather — part of the safety gear that came with the job — elicits positive responses from most.
“People started calling me Smiling Kat, and Smiling Traffic Agent. Even the grumpiest grumps would crack a smile,” she said. “Mostly it’s all about the kids, though. I see them going to school and I want them to start their day with a smile. Even the high school kids, I put a smile on their faces. I see it.
“I have always just hoped to make a difference, one smile at a time,” she said.
The smiling and dancing will be coming to an end at the end of the month, however. Her last day on the job will be Friday, September 29.
As much as she loves her job, Ms Holick came to the difficult decision during the summer months that she needs to give it up.
“We’ve sacrificed a lot over the last few years,” she said recently. “I drive a really old truck that needs work. I have some medical concerns. It’s just due to our finances.
“I had hoped I wouldn’t have to do this, but unfortunately…,” her voice trails off, and the tears sneak into her eyes. They do that a lot lately. She loves the job she is giving up.
“I’m not just a crossing guard,” she said. In fact, someone once told her, she said, “that I choreograph traffic.”
What she has brought to the job during her tenure, however, is an ongoing offering of encouragement.
“I do what I can to get smiles,” she said. “But I also always keep an eye on everything and everyone. Any time I need to, I can give up the dancing.”
Working Through Pain
There have been only a few days where the legs and hips are not swaying, the arms and hands are not as lively as others. For those who follow her public Facebook page, Smiling Kat (formerly Newtown’s Smiling Traffic Agent), that’s where the public often learns that the temporary loss of a smile may have been due to a temporary illness or personal concern. She has worked through bouts of diverticulitis, the onset of the flu, even a burned arm.
In December 2015 one driver leaving the high school hit the traffic agent with their vehicle. Ms Holick continued working that afternoon, but was pulled off duty once police officers arrived on the scene.
“I had a badly sprained arm, muscle strains of my chest and ribs, but no broken bones,” she said. That accident kept her off duty for one week. She returned to duty December 14, 2015, three years to the date of 12/14.
“I wanted people to see that even on a solemn day you can still smile,” she said, admitting that some of her smiles that day were more like grimaces. “I was in excruciating pain.”
Standing out in weather that would challenge postal workers, even being struck by a vehicle, those were not the most difficult days on the job for the local celebrity. The toughest day, she said, was just over two years ago, when she was told to calm things down.
“The one person who didn’t want me dancing, that was the low point,” she said.
In May 2015, a call to the police department from an irate driver who felt that Ms Holick’s dance moves distracted another passing driver led to the temporary halt of the traffic agent’s routine. It was not the first complaint to the department, but it was one that drew attention.
Local social media exploded, primarily with strong support for Ms Holick. One post even compared Newtown to the fictional community in the film Footloose, where dancing is illegal.
“The thing that affects everybody else’s enjoyment, that gets me,” she said last week. “I’ve literally jumped in front of cars, making sure the kids are behind me. Giving directions, occasionally yelling, it has always been for the safety of those kids. I’d make a good speed bump. The kids won’t.
“To be told that I was a distraction broke my heart,” she said.
Within a week of that complaint, and following discussions between Ms Holick and her supervisors, the smiling traffic agent Holick was told she could dance again, but to modify things a little.
In light of the incident, and lesser ones that preceded the angry call, Supervising Sergeant Aaron Bahamonde told The Newtown Bee that month that it was hard to justify to parents “why someone is dancing when they have the lives of children crossing and school buses in their hands.”
Ms Holick’s employment has been through Newtown Police Department.
Sgt Bahamonde was quick to also offer support of Ms Holick, however, adding that she was “doing a great job, but safety is most important. We do appreciate how for most people she improves the community’s quality of life.”
The sergeant also admitted Ms Holick’s “enthusiasm is second to none.”
With the recent schedule change for the bus runs — in June, the Board of Education approved a reconfiguration of bus schedules — the morning shift outside Newtown High School has brought an increased number of vehicles through the Berkshire Road intersection where she is directing high school traffic.
“In the morning now it’s even closer to the rush hour,” she said. “It gets a little worrisome.
“I never show too much fear,” she said September 12. “The way I look at it is: hit me, don’t hit the kids. I don’t want those children hurt.”
Ms Holick interacts with students from kindergarten through high school seniors, and loves all of them. She has been honored by Boy Scouts (Pack 270 invited her to its Blue & Gold Banquet in May 2016), invited to participate in Newtown’s Labor Day Parade, and receives dozens of cards and homemade notes at holidays, final days of school, and other special days.
“I am overwhelmed with so much love and generosity from this town,” she said. “The high school kids kept asking me to go to their graduations, but I wasn’t able to go to them.”
This past June, she made it to the Class of 2017 graduation exercises.
“It was perfect,” she said. “Those were the kids I started with, when they were freshmen.”
Newtown native Valerie Dudeck Hart is among those who interacts with Ms Holick regularly. Ms Hart has one child who attends Reed School and another who is a student at Newtown High School.
“Every time we pass her it’s an event,” Ms Hart said September 20. “They smile and wave. It’s great.
“I’ve known Kat for a long time, because she’s also a lifelong resident,” added Ms Hart. “The biggest thing for me and my kids is, she does this every day. The smiling and the waving and the dancing, that’s who she is.
“As a parent and an adult in this town, we are constantly reminding ourselves to be kind, and compassionate, and she’s out there doing that every day for everyone,” Ms Hart said. “She’s a real special person.”
Farewell cards and gifts have started arriving for the retiring traffic agent.
“The notes from the kids, those have always gotten to me,” Ms said this week.
Ms Hart is spearheading a farewell gift for the outgoing traffic agent. A gofundme account has been launched, with a $10,000 goal.
“I thought there was no better way for residents to say Thank You than to send her off with a present to start the new chapter in her life,” Ms Hart explained. “I know this is all very emotional for her. We want to do something to tell her she’s appreciated.”
Prior to taking on her current role, Ms Holick worked with her husband. Steve Holick is the proprietor of Strictly Carpet Repairs. The couple lives in Newtown.
After 12/14, Ms Holick spent a lot of time taking care of gifts and donations that were being sent to town.
“I took care of the families’ gifts,” she said. She first volunteered at a warehouse that was set up, then moved with other to rooms at Newtown Municipal Center.
“I embraced some of those families, and brought stuff to them,” she said. “It was heartwarming that they trusted me with that responsibility.”
Ms Holick may take a few days off after the final bus passes through her location next Friday afternoon, but does plan to go right back to work with husband Steve quickly. She is taking her sense of humor with her.
“I’ve survived four years of working on the road,” she said, laughing. “He’s going to have to survive working with me again.”