A bridge to the past

Published 12:06 pm Friday, November 27, 2020

Bill Neville, 93, of South Point, carries a photo of his brother and fellow World War II veteran, Fred, as he crosses the Oakley C. Collins Memorial Bridge on Friday. Neville has done the walk in memory of his brother each year since the bridge opened in 2016. (The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

Monday marked four years since the closure of the old Ironton-Russell bridge and the opening of the Oakley C. Collins Bridge and it was the time of year that Bill Neville chose to make his fifth annual special walk.

Neville, who turns 94 on New Year’s Eve, began the tradition in 2016 for his brother Fred, a World War II veteran of the European theater.

When Fred was an infant, he was carried across the old bridge by their mother, Birdie Nell, and grandmother, Lucinda Blankenship, shortly after its opening in 1922.

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When the span closed 94 years later, Fred was too ill to come to the opening of the new bridge, so Neville walked both the old and new structures for his brother.

Fred died the following April and, every year since, Neville has taken his American flag and walks the bridge in his memory.

He made his trip for 2020 on Friday, masking up due to the COVID-19 pandemic and making the trek on a sunny and warm day.

He said this year’s walk was also dedicated to the memory of two residents of the area who helped with the bridge’s opening.

Centenarians Della Burton and Verna Mae “Bunn” Sloan rode in the first car to cross the new span that day. Burton died the following March at age 102, while Sloan died earlier this year at 104.

Neville, who is a World War II veteran as well, having served in the occupation of Japan, said, in addition to his brother, he also does the walk in memory of all veterans, as well as those to honor who built the bridges.

“It’s a way to remember and get people to connect,” he said. “I hope to do it again next year.”

Neville is retired as an industrial engineer from AK Steel/Armco and is the oldest member of Community Missionary Baptist Church in Deering, where he has served as its longtime caretaker.