The vestiges of Bob DeBellis' past are mostly loaded into trucks to be carted away. The emotional baggage isn't as easy to discard.
"I'm happy. I really am," insists the 59-year-old Roselle man, pulling the oxygen tank he needs to breathe as he surveys a nearly empty garage that had been packed with sentimental remnants of the life he had before he developed health problems.
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But all that junk being hauled away by a company called Junk Remedy isn't really junk to this retired welder. It's memories of good times and laughter with his wife and three kids, memorials to his talents and monuments to his years at the top of his game.
The Junk Remedy crew unearths an antique Hobart welder with hand crank, power tools he thought were lost or stolen, a fancy laser from back when he was one of the first to use a laser while installing ductwork, his old Little League photo from 1966, and plenty of Folger's coffee cans filled with rivets, bolts, screws, even one with Kennedy half dollars.
"Oh yeah, I miss it," DeBellis says, not explaining if he's referring to his boxes of old welding supplies, his career in the sheet metal business or simply that time of his life -- all of which are now gone. The physical loss of old stuff signals a new realization that items he once thought were important enough to save are no longer needed for this stretch of his life.
No one disputes that the garage had gotten out of hand. The essay entry by DeBellis' wife, Dianne, won the Daily Herald's Extreme Garage Makeover Contest, sponsored by Junk Remedy in Lake Zurich and the Garage Store in East Dundee. Bob DeBellis thanks everybody for getting rid of the clutter. Dianne DeBellis hugs Junk Remedy co-owner Corey Heidkamp and every member of his crew.
"Life is very short; it can change on a dime, and you can't take it with you when you go," Heidkamp gently explains to Bob DeBellis. A golfer and former PGA apprentice who knows the importance of a good mental approach, Heidkamp says, "We like helping people."
Much of DeBellis' equipment hasn't been used since the 1980s, so why does he still hang on to it?
"It's just ... I don't know. Just in case I need to weld like that," DeBellis says, realizing mid-sentence the flaw in his argument. "Of course, I haven't had to."
DeBellis does keep his massive sheet metal bending brake, which folds and bends metal. Dubbed "a 600-pound paperweight" by Heidkamp, the metal machine is a piece of history, but worth about 80 bucks as scrap. Dianne DeBellis and their grown children encourage DeBellis to part with other things.
"We just kept reassuring him," says son Jim DeBellis, 35, who lives nearby in Bloomingdale and works in the sheet metal business. The crew carries away the son's long-forgotten boyhood collection of hubcaps, which still were stored in a canoe, which the family used a generation ago when they their yard in Schaumburg would flood.
"He spent his whole life acquiring this stuff, and it's hard to get rid of," acknowledges son Rob DeBellis, 37, who served in the Marines and as a suburban police officer before finding a career in the steel business. "Don't save anything for me," the Lake in the Hills man tells his dad. "We don't have room for all this stuff."
Seeing the junk guys haul away old scuba equipment reminds Bob DeBellis of the family cruise to Grand Cayman in 1982. That's when daughter Dawn, who celebrated her 12th birthday on the ship, developed the interest that led the girl and her dad to take scuba lessons and inspired her to go to college to become a marine biologist, the dad remembers.
"He's holding onto the memories of our father/daughter time," says Dawn Jeffcoats, 33, who now lives in Texas and is busy with two young daughters of her own. They don't need the equipment to remember those good times, she notes.
In February 2001, Bob DeBellis was injured when a truck rear-ended his vehicle. He tried to go back to work, but eventually needed an operation to fuse a bone in his neck. He has artificial knees and a bad shoulder, suffered a heart attack on his birthday in 2007, and needs the oxygen because his lungs have less than 50 percent function due to emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He also has five grandsons, three granddaughters, two great-granddaughters and a woman who has been at his side for almost 45 years.
"When I was 15, I was working at a Community Discount store. I was in the garden department. She was working the register up front," Bob DeBellis says. She asked him out, but wondered if she made a mistake.
"I had second thoughts, but his phone number was unlisted so I had to go out with him," Dianne DeBellis says. They went miniature golfing and the last hole spit out a fortune that read, "Your date's in love with you."
They married in 1974 and compiled a lifetime of stories. They tell how she held the metal petals the time he welded a large metal rose for the Taste of Roselle; how the kids handed his equipment down to him through the crawl space opening as he built a furnace in their old Schaumburg home; how she taped $100 bills to the back of photographs on the wall to keep him from spending everything on fun family outings; how she found him just by chance on the night of his heart attack; how he once taught Gung Fu in his garage; how he is fond of Hawaiian shirts; about the industrial grill he made for the Roselle Lions Club; how she got him his first job; how he gave up his own company to spend more time with family; about the work he did building the new United Terminal at O'Hare; and about the welding job he did for a prison.
Just as they now have too much stuff for their garage, they have too many stories for this column.
But the end of some things leads to a beginning of others.
"Oh, my God! Here's the key!" Dianne screeches. At the bottom of the very last box removed from the garage, the workers find the key to Bob DeBellis' old cherry red Suzuki motorcycle that still sports a 1991 license plate.
Idle for years, the motorcycle suddenly gets new life. DeBellis' wife and kids say they hope a clean garage does the same for the man they love. For years, he's talked about setting up a small shop in his garage, making things again, or at least teaching the grandkids his craft.
"Now, he's getting a little hopeful." Dianne DeBellis says, noting how work was such a large part of her husband's life.
"I love it. I miss it a lot. I really do. They used to say, 'How does this old guy work so fast?'" DeBellis says, as his lips bend into a smile and he contemplates his future. "But I can do this."