WILBUR IS NOT the most beautiful dog in the world.

He has a crooked face and is broad across the chest, which makes him look bow-legged.

Beyond that, the 13-year-old, black-and-white, beagle-bull terrier mix is slowing down a bit, and his brown eyes are getting cloudy.

“The parts don’t fit together very well,” his owner, Cindy Longstaff, acknowledges. “See, he’s got a snaggle-tooth and sometimes his lip will get caught under his tooth, and he has this funny-looking grin.”

While he may be considered kind of ugly, the children at Albert S. Hall School in Waterville think Wilbur is just lovely.

A few times a week, Longstaff, 75, walks Wilbur to the elementary school on Pleasant Street, where he greets the children getting off the school bus. They have been doing this for about four years.

The tradition started when Longstaff and Wilbur stopped on their walk one day to visit the school crossing guard. A small bus with special needs students pulled up to the curb to let children out, and there was a particular boy who did not look happy at all. Longstaff noticed that the next day he seemed similarly morose.

“He was in a foul mood, and he was having a terrible time,” Longstaff recalled. “Somewhere along the line, he started getting off the bus with a big grin when he saw Wilbur.”

It was then that Longstaff decided she’d bring the dog regularly to the bus stop to greet the students.

“Everybody comes by and strokes his ears,” she said. “Some are timid, but they kind of get over that. They learn that he’s just there to say, ‘Good morning,’ and I think they relate to that.”

On a cloudy, raw Wednesday last week, I accompanied Longstaff and Wilbur on their walk to school. At 7:30 a.m., we crossed Pleasant Street from the home Longstaff has shared for 40 years with her husband, state Rep. Tom Longstaff. Wilbur plodded along, sniffing the wet leaves and puddles on the sidewalks, his skinny tail wagging to and fro.

We crossed to Nudd Street with Longstaff explaining how Wilbur came into their lives several years ago when his owner, a neighbor, moved away and left him in their care. Wilbur at the time was a nervous dog and leery of people.

“He’s come a long way in socializing himself with people,” Longstaff said. “When he first came to us, he’d spin — he’d just go round and round in a circle.”

We continued to Dalton Street, which feeds out onto Pleasant.

Frannie Brown, the crossing guard, was in front of the school, walking kids across the street.

“Hi Wilbur,” she called, reaching down to pat the canine. “This is our mascot.”

Brown, also 75, has been the crossing guard 36 years. She and Cindy Longstaff met years ago when their children were both on school swim teams. Brown said Wilbur is so popular he was featured prominently in the school’s yearbook.

“The special needs bus is the one that gets the biggest kick out of Wilbur,” she said.

The activity quickened on the street, as buses, cars and parents with children converged at the bus stop. Brown escorted children across the street as other kids poured out of buses.

Some stopped to pat Wilbur as Longstaff wished them a happy Thanksgiving.

“Hey, Wilbur,” a boy carrying a cello said, bending to greet the dog. “I won’t hurt you. I don’t want Wilbur to be afraid of me, just because I have this big instrument.”

He introduced himself as Kaleb Macomber, 10. The fifth-grader said he has known Wilbur two years, ever since he started at Albert Hall School, and likes him a lot.

“He’s my favorite dog because he’s always here in the morning for us to say, ‘Hi,’ and pet him,” Macomber said. “And it seems as if he’s just a good dog.”

Nat Minot, 10, was one of the last students to arrive at school. He embraced Wilbur with both hands.

“I’m patting Wilbur two times at once,” he said.

Early in November, Minot wrote a poem about Wilbur that says:

“Who can be angry?/ Who can be sad?/ With a cute little puppy around/ With floppy little ears/ A silly little face/ And a cute little nose so round/ You may try to ignore it/ But you can’t help but adore it/ And pet it and scratch it and laugh/ Who can be angry?/ Who can be sad?/ With a cute little puppy around!”

As Minot climbed the school steps, Principal Barbara Jordan stepped out to say hello to Longstaff and Wilbur.

Jordan said the dog is a welcoming presence at the school.

“Wilbur’s special because he brings joy to the students when they get off the bus — joy and happiness,” Jordan said. “It starts the day positively for many of the students. And for Cindy to come each day and make a special point to be here, it speaks volumes for who she is, her character. It’s just another adult making a difference in the lives of children.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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