It was hard for Sonny Soliz to hold back his emotions as he carefully pulled out the 13 watercolor paintings he created to honor the veterans of Hero Street in Silvis more than four decades ago.
One of the paintings, “I Remember When,” shows his father, August Soliz, at the Rock Island National Cemetery where his brother, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Claro Soliz, is buried.
Just above August’s head is a lightly painted depiction of the death of Claro, who died from injuries sustained after falling over a barbed-wire fence somewhere in Belgium in 1945.
Another painting, titled “Wait Until I Am 18,” shows a small boy on Hero Street thinking about the day that he can go off and defend his country like the older boys he admires.
Sonny Soliz, now in his 80s, was one of those young boys.
“Our heroes were the older boys,” Soliz said at his Silvis home. "We didn’t need to look at Batman, Superman. No, our heroes were the men from Hero Street, and we wanted to do what they did. The younger generation wanted to go in there.”
Twelve of Soliz’s Hero Street paintings are included in a special calendar that will be sold until the end of December to raise money to help maintain the Hero Street monument at 1st Avenue and 2nd Street in Silvis.
The monument, completed in 2007, honors about two dozen Mexican-American families from whom eight sons made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II and the Korean War.
Those men are Claro Soliz, Frank Sandoval, Joe Sandoval, William Sandoval, Joseph Gomez, Johnny Munos, Peter Masias and Tony Pompa.
Since then, more than 100 of those families' sons and daughters have served in uniform.
Soliz, a retired Silvis Junior High School art teacher, designed the 18-foot, 35-ton granite, bronze and cement monument. Engraved portraits of each of the Hero Street 8 are prominently featured on the monument.
“It was a dream,” Soliz said. “When people asked me how I designed this, I said, 'I don’t know.' I’m a watercolorist, I do not design monuments. But I had presented the story of Hero Street at colleges, high schools, to businessmen. I am not a designer, but I believe that the good Lord allowed me to design this.”
Soliz served in the U.S. Air Force as a jet mechanic from 1952-1956. He went on to receive his bachelor's degree from St. Ambrose University, Davenport, and earned his master's degree in 1974 from Western Illinois University in Macomb.
It was his Uncle Claro, also an artist, who inspired him to continue making art.
Sonny Soliz recalls a day in 1943 when Claro Soliz was home on leave. Sonny Soliz, then 10, showed his uncle a drawing of “Bambi,” which his uncle told him was “pretty good.”
“He said, ‘Don’t give up, keep trying,’” Sonny Soliz said as he started to choke up. “So I kept trying.”
As part of his master's program, Soliz created 13 paintings that honored Hero Street and the men and women who sacrificed everything to defend their country.
One of the paintings, “182 Hero Street U.S.A,” depicts Army Air Corps Sgt. Tony Pompa, a tail gunner who died when the B-17 bomber he was flying in was shot down by enemy fire over Italy.
The painting features a portrait of Pompa framed by the wreckage of the plane. Pompa lied about his age — he was only 16 — and changed his last name to “Lopez” because he was not a U.S. citizen in order to join the military.
“Does that tell you anything about the dedication?” Sonny Soliz asked as he held up the painting.
The paintings have stayed in storage for years. Soliz said he had the idea of turning the paintings into a calendar 15 years ago, after he began to show slides of his work at different events.
Soliz said the calendar is a special way to honor all veterans.