Tony Eldridge is looking forward to retirement with gusto.
"I've got me a bucket list," he declared.
A survivor of bladder cancer, he wants to go kayaking, join the fencing club at the Knights of Columbus in Homeland, write songs and go horseback riding like his father, a rodeo cowboy for 30 years.
"I want to find some of the fastest roller coasters in the country and ride them," he said.
And he said that for $500, a company is offering rides with a mock dogfight in a Russian MiG-25 jet in Montana.
"They videotape it," he said excitedly.
Eldridge, 63, of west Baltimore, will have the rest of his life to accomplish his goals. He is retiring after 41 years as a police and school safety officer, 38 of those years with the Baltimore City public schools and the past 13 years at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, where the beloved officer is known by the staff, students and parents simply as Officer Tony.
The first week of school that started Monday will be Eldridge's last week. The West Virginia native will spend the week training his replacement, Officer Jade' Baker. And then, he will ride off into the sunset — but maybe with a little more travel money than he expected.
Parents are taking up a collection for Eldridge and signing a giant poster board. A regular farewell card won't do, "because so many families want to sign it," said organizer Maiju Gardner, of Lake Evesham, a member of the school's wellness committee and mother of a seventh and an eighth grader at the school.
"We love him," said Gardner, a professor of theology at Loyola University Maryland. "He would do anything to keep the kids safe."
Eldridge has been more than a police officer, even singing at school events such as last year's school Christmas celebration, Gardner said.
"Parents are heartbroken for him to be retiring," she said.
Eldridge is more than a little sad himself.
"I'm going to miss the babies," he said, referring to Roland Park's 1,275 students. "When I come to work here, it's like therapy."
Once a traditional Baltimore City police officer, he is now one of 120 public school safety officers and works for the Board of Education. He has been assigned to eight different schools in his career.
"We're armed," he said. "We're regular police officers, sworn officers."
He said his job is to "protect life" and ensure "a safe learning environment."
Roland Park doesn't have the violence problems that plague some schools, such as students bringing weapons to school. What it does have are traffic and parking problems. Roland Avenue is clogged weekday mornings and afternoons as cars and school buses drop off and pick up students at the public school as well as at Gilman, Bryn Mawr and Roland Park Country. Parents often park illegally.
Of all the school officers in the city, "I write more parking tickets than anybody," Eldridge said. "I might write up a book of tickets in a month."
But he will no longer be there to see the start of a $3.5 million city project, partly funded by Bryn Mawr and Gilman, to alleviate traffic congestion.
The plan, tentatively set to start in December, calls for resurfacing Roland Avenue between West Cold Spring Lane and Northern Parkway; installing a new traffic signal on Northern Parkway between Roland and North Charles Street; modifying and widening the median on Roland in front of Gilman School; and enhancing area intersections with curb bumpouts and crosswalks.
The main part of Eldridge's job is to patrol the school halls and grounds — about two miles a day — and connect with students, teachers and parents.
"Getting to know everybody is the key to this job," he said. "I know everybody in the building, the people, the nannies, the dogs. I want to know who's coming in my building."
On Monday, the first day of school, he was outside directing traffic, blowing his whistle, admonishing parents not to park at the curb or in the back parking lot, and telling students not to cross in the middle of the street ("You're on your own," he warned one).
But he took time to hug people he knew, which was almost everybody. And some ran up to him.
"I gotta give some love to this guy," said Robert Heck, a Roland Park parent and a city school board commissioner.
Meanwhile, his successor, Baker, 29, of Towson, a 5-year veteran of the school system, patrolled quietly but with authority.
"This is easy," said Baker, adding that she has worked at more "aggressive" schools, where "I was always looking around for a (student) fight."
It was nothing but love and well wishes for Officer Tony.
"So many good people here," he said. "It's family."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun