STERLING – Jim Lopez got little sleep in early 1979.
That was the worst winter in his 44 years with the Sterling Township road district.
Jim's daughter, Bonnie Wheeler, recalls the experience vividly.
"I can remember us getting out of bed every now and then, looking out the window and waiting for him to come home from plowing," Wheeler said in a recent email. "He went so long with little sleep. Then we would hear the truck go down the road. 'There goes Dad.'"
He would walk through the door at 10 a.m., the heat would hit him, and he would fall face first into the couch.
"He was so tired," said Wheeler, who now lives in Clinton. "But he took a shower and rested and then went back out."
Lopez is leaving his job as road commissioner on May 17. Dana Stutzke, owner of a local excavating company, defeated him in the April 9 election.
Lopez, 77, has been the commissioner for the past dozen years. He started with the road district in 1969.
For an entire month in the winter of 1979, snowstorms bombarded the Midwest. It got to the point where snowplows weren't good enough, Lopez said, so the township resorted to loaders.
He remembers constantly clearing the road for a woman who was expecting to go into labor at any time And the township had a nurse jump into the cab of a loader so she could get to work.
"That was the biggest winter we had," Lopez said. "That was the closest I came to quitting this job."
The township's roads have seen a lot of change over the past few decades. When Lopez started, the township still had gravel roads. Now they're all paved, he said.
He remembers the crews going out with a full truck to fill potholes. These days, he said, they take out a small utility truck to fill a few potholes here and there. And it's less expensive to fix roads, thanks to recycling, he said.
"Companies are trying to find ways to keep roads in shape without spending too much money, because money is tight in government," Lopez said.
Lopez and his wife, Barbara, take pride in the local PADS homeless shelter, which they started more than two decades ago.
They helped one homeless man get his GED and later a college education. They did so by giving him money for gasoline so he could get to class.
"We knew he wouldn't be able to pay us back," Lopez said.
He also watched a man and a woman in the shelter meet and get jobs at Walmart. They later married.
"Many people judge [the homeless]," said Lopez, who is also retiring as a deacon with St. Mary Catholic Church in Sterling after 15 years. "People judge them because they are different. That's not right. They're just as good as we are."
Most people in the shelter, he said, don't blame anyone else for their situation.
"A lot of them mention God. They don't blame God," he said. "They say they made the wrong choices."
Jim's daughter, Bonnie, said she couldn't remember her father calling in sick.
"His work ethic and dedication is outstanding," she wrote in the email. “I look for him to find a place in the community and find ways to make a difference."
Lopez said it's a good time to retire so he can take care of his wife.
"My guys have done a super job here," he said. "I really would like to thank residents for allowing me to serve them. I enjoyed every minute of it."
Besides Bonnie Wheeler, his other children are Jim Lopez Jr. of Ohio, Linda Moyer of Sterling, Anita Schryver of Rock Falls, Jesse Lopez of Texas, Robert Lopez of Clinton, Cindy Lopez of Bettendorf, Al Davis of Sterling, Jim Cox of Wyoming, and Rick Cox of Iowa.
To say farewell
Friends and family plan a celebration for Sterling Township Road Commissioner Jim Lopez from noon to 4 p.m. May 19 at the Sterling Moose, 2601 E. Lincolnway. Lopez, who started with the road district in 1969, is leaving office May 17.