For 35 years, Bill Smith kept watch over a small section of concrete in the street near his house.
Any time workers came to do so much as fill a pothole, Smith headed out the door.
He couldn’t let anyone tear up that one section near the intersection of 42nd Street and 29th Avenue in Rock Island. It meant too much to him and his wife, Jeanette.
In 1976, the couple’s 16-year-old son, Billy, had pressed his hands into what then was freshly poured concrete. The teenager then wrote his initials above his handprints, “BDS.”
In May of the next year, he graduated from Rock Island High School. Four months later, shortly before his 18th birthday, Billy Dale Smith died in a car accident.
“I didn’t know he’d done the handprints until about six months later,” his father said. “I was out walking the dog, and when I saw those initials, I knew it was him. His initials are the same as mine.”
The couple asked Billy’s two younger brothers about the imprints in the street.
“Of course, they knew he’d done it,” Jeanette said. “The boys used to lie there in the grass at the neighbor’s. I can just picture him there, waiting for the workers to leave, so he could stick his handprints in the wet concrete.”
And that is why the little section of street was so important.
“Whenever I saw work going on up there, I’d always take a walk up the street and explain my son’s handprints,” Bill said. “I must’ve done it 20 times over the years.”
About a month ago, he saw a crew of city-hired workers in the street near Billy’s handprints.
“I walked up there to see what was going on, and they were tearing up the whole street,” Bill said. “I talked to one of the guys, and he told me to talk to his boss. The boss said, yes, they would be tearing it all up, but they wouldn’t be doing it that day.
“He went over and marked the area around the handprints, told the other guys about it and asked where I lived.”
Then, the Smiths waited. A couple of weeks went by.
“Last week, they came up and knocked on the door — four of them,” Bill said. “They asked where I’d like them to put the piece of the street.”
The next day, Billy’s handprints were delivered to his parents’ yard.
“They just showed up with the end loader,” Bill said. “Honestly, I was beginning to think I wouldn’t live long enough to get that chunk of rock.”
Jeanette was having doubts, too.
“As the years went by, I didn’t think we’d get it back,” she said. “I mean, Billy did this 36 years ago.”
What they got was more than just a chunk of torn-up street.
“They cleaned it all up, shaved off the sides to square it up,” Bill said.
The crew from Langman Construction also cleaned 36 years’ worth of dirt out of the imprints before delivering the precious piece of street to the Smiths.
“I’d take our grandkids for a walk, and we’d talk about their uncle,” Jeanette said. “His handprints were getting pretty faded from so many years of cars running over them and from all the years of dirt. But these guys used some kind of cleaner and got the dirt out of the prints. They wouldn’t let us pay them anything.”
Among the guys was Langman foreman Mike Wilkinson. The street job in Rock Island had been meaningful to him, too. After 35 years in the construction business, it was Wilkinson’s last job before retirement.
But he also felt a connection to the Smiths.
“I lost a daughter in 1988,” he said. “I understand.
“We just sawed it out of the street with a cutoff saw. I was going to trim it down a little, but I was afraid we’d crack it. We were more than happy to do it for them. I’ve got a pretty good group of guys.”
Thanks to them, Billy’s handprints are at home with his parents. In the spring, his dad plans to dig a spot in the backyard for the concrete and mount it there, like a headstone.
“I believed in those guys,” Bill said. “I knew they’d do it.”
But the Smiths had no idea a crew of strangers, working in the street, would take such care with the long-ago memory of their young Billy.
“They were so very gentle with it,” Jeanette said, looking down at her son’s handprints. “It shows you: There are a lot of good people in the world. You just don’t hear about them.”
But you should.
Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or firstname.lastname@example.org.