GENOA, Ill. (AP) — Once it’s in the garbage truck, it’s gone.
At least, that’s what Waste Management DeKalb worker Chris Hampel had been telling people for the 26 years he’d worked for the Houston-based company. And that’s what he told Bonnie Fisher of Genoa when she stopped his truck Nov. 15.
Fisher had been driving around Genoa looking for the truck after learning her husband accidentally had discarded a box full of her 91-year-old father’s mementos, including his baby book and items from his service in the U.S. Army during World War II.
“There were many cool things in this box. Lots of pictures, a letter written home, certificates from the Army,” Fisher said. “There were also other things … such as Valentine cards he made for his grandmother (when) he was maybe 10. So they are 81 years old. There was a cool cookbook he made out of wood for his mom when he was a kid, also there was his baby book. Still in (its) original box, it is 91 years old.”
When Fisher found the garbage truck, she pulled in front of it and asked Hampel for help.
“She was shaking, almost crying,” Hampel said. “I told her that if it was in the truck, it was pretty much gone.”
Hampel told Fisher he’d look for it when he got to the landfill, but said finding it amid the eight tons of garbage in the truck was a long shot.
“It’s rare to find something,” he said. “I told her it is like winning the lottery.”
Hampel felt bad for Fisher. If Hampel’s father, who served in the Air Force, had lost something like that, he’d want to get it back. He cut his route short and went straight to the DeKalb County landfill near Cortland.
In the meantime, Fisher was losing hope.
Fisher’s mother, Betty Ball, died Sept. 2. Fisher and her husband, Steve, have been working to move her father, Ray Ball, from his home in Tennessee to a place in Genoa to be near family. On Nov. 3, Fisher and her friend, Debby Karl, went to Greeneville, Tennessee, to help Fisher’s father pack and prepare his house to be listed for sale.
During the visit, Ball had discovered the box in his basement. He asked his daughter to bring it back with her instead of packing it in with the rest of his stuff on a U-Haul truck. When Fisher got home with the box, she put it in the garage.
“Normally, I would have put it in my basement, but my plan was to take it over to (my father’s) house in town,” Fisher said. “In the meantime, I told my husband what this box is in the garage, so he would know.”
Four days after Veterans Day, “something told me to go to the garage and look for that box,” Fisher said. “I swear it was my mom telling me.”
The box was gone.
She called Steve to find out what happened. She could hear her husband’s voice sink. He had thought she wanted him to throw it out.
“I called my friend Debby to see if she remembered what all was in the box, as she was there in Tennessee when we went through it. That’s when she reminded me of his baby book and then I cried all over again,” Fisher said. “She tried to explain to me that everything in that box was ‘material’ things, and that I was blessed that I still had my dad of 91 years still here. She was right and she said maybe I shouldn’t even tell him, that maybe he would never ask about that box. So I decided I wouldn’t tell him unless he asked someday. My heart was sick.”
At the landfill, Hempel, with help from DeKalb County’s landfill operator, found a safe place to dump the load to search for the items. He thought that based on the route, the box would be in the middle of the load. It was, but it had broken open. Some of the contents had spilled out. Hampel gathered everything he could find and put it back in the box. He then drove to Fisher’s home.
At first, Fisher said she thought it was another Waste Management truck collecting recyclables. But when the driver got out, she realized it was Hampel and he had found the box.
“I freaked out and went running out there,” she said.
“She was happier than ever,” Hampel said.
Fisher tried to repay the kindness with cash, but Hampel declined. So, Fisher gave him a hug.
“Chris went above and beyond,” Fisher said. “He could have just forgot all about it and finished his workday. I can never thank him enough.”
Waste Management officials praised Hampel’s work.
“We are proud of Chris’s actions and determination to try to find the family’s keepsakes,” said Lou Ferruzza, district manager. “Chris’s experience has been exciting for our entire team.”
The miscommunication with her husband on the day before the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary was nearly forgotten.
Fisher bought a new Rubbermaid box for her father’s mementos. She labeled it “Dad’s army box,” ”keep,” and “this means you Steve.”
Ray Ball doesn’t yet know that his keepsakes nearly ended up in a landfill. Fisher said she plans to tell him the story in person when he arrives in three weeks.
“He has a hard time hearing on the phone, so I am waiting to tell him when he gets here in three weeks,” Fisher said. “He can read this story and also see that all his things survived thanks to Chris Hampel.”