PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The children and parents who gathered at Underhill Playground after the first day back to school could feel that there was something missing.
The playground — loved by kids for its swings and sprinklers and by parents for its single, gated entrance — was still just as pristine as it had been in the spring, the shady benches just as crowded.
But the playground's beloved custodian and veteran Parks Department employee John Turner, 62, was nowhere to be seen, after quietly retiring his post this spring, park officials said.
"Where's Mr. John?" asked Zoe Barner, 7, who was among the throngs of children who went searching for Turner Thursday, a man who had been as much a part of Underhill as the trees and the flagpole and the mosaics on the bathroom wall.
"It's a big absence," said Zoe's father, longtime friend Thomas Barner. "All the kids here grew up with him."
Turner, a Vietnam veteran who kept careful watch over the yard to ensure the safety of those in the playground, developed a reputation as a secret superhero ready to chase off toughs and rush toward the occasional oncoming bullet.
Turner sprang into action when shots rang out across the street from the crowded playground in early 2008, shepherding parents and children to safety in the park house, doubling back after he'd secured them inside to make sure he hadn't missed anyone, according to the Parks Department.
"He was a real warm presence on the playground," said mom Kirsten Denker. "I've always felt totally safe here."
"We live across the street, so we come here every day," Barner said. "He's like a surrogate grandfather to my daughter."