Can collector has special reason for visiting school each day

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 2, 2003

The kids at school all call him Pop. Pop isn’t his real name, of course. His real name is Ralph. Ralph does not work at the school, but he doesn’t miss a day visiting the school. He comes each day to pick up the pop cans. He visits every building in the entire school system. He picks the aluminum pop cans out of the garbage and places them in a large plastic garbage bag that he carries over his shoulder.

It takes the better part of a day for him to complete his rounds. Ralph didn’t get the nickname Pop because of his age, although at nearly 70 years old, he seems ancient to the students at the school. Most days, Ralph talks to no one as he goes about his can collecting chores. He looks like someone who is all business. A quiet and gentle man, Ralph always has a smile for anyone who looks in his direction. He places the pop cans into his big garbage bag as leftover soda dribbles out onto his shoes and pantslegs. It creates a sticky mess, but after all his years of collecting pop cans, it doesn’t bother Ralph. Ralph collects the cans from the school and takes them to his home. There, he rinses them out in his garage and when he gets enough cans, he hauls them to a recycling center. On a good day, he will gather up enough cans to bring him $5 from the recycler.

Ralph is a retired carpenter and has been gathering cans on a daily basis for 17 years. The kids in the school wonder about Pop as he goes about his daily duty of gathering aluminum cans. Most figure he takes the pop cans because he doesn’t have a lot of money. They suspect he uses the money made from recycling the cans to supplement his meager income. Others believe he gives the money to his grandchildren. He looks like a good man who would do nice things like that. Yet others think that he does it because he is retired and needs something to do because he doesn’t golf. And there are a few who tend to believe the worst and think that he might have a problem with alcohol and that he collects the cans in order to get enough money to buy more booze.

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What is the truth? Why does Ralph spend five days a week visiting a school and digging through syrupy messes in garbage cans to find pop cans that he gets only $5 a day from? Why doesn’t he visit other locations for their pop cans? Why doesn’t he ever pick up a beer can from the street? Why doesn’t he accept money offered to him by the kind teachers and custodians? Good questions.

A master carpenter and one of those men who could make just about anything out of wood, Ralph could easily find a part-time job that would involve less work and provide him with far greater monetary rewards.

Ralph has a good reason for doing what he does. Ralph uses the pop can money to fund a scholarship fund. He and his cans provide all of the money for this fund. He has over $16,000 in it now and as soon as the fund reaches $20,000, Ralph will begin giving scholarships to students at the school where he picks up the cans.

There will be a few conditions attached to anyone hoping to receive one of the scholarships. The winner must be female, a good student and a member of the school’s softball team. Why these stipulations? Ralph had three sons and a daughter who all attended the school where their father picks up the pop cans. His daughter was the baby of the family and Ralph doted on her. Ralph’s wife had died when his daughter was just a baby. Ralph had become both the father and the mother to his children. Ralph will give the award only to girls who are good students and softball players because his daughter was a good student and a softball player. He only picks up cans at the one school because that is the school that his daughter attended.

You see, she died during her senior year of high school, right in the middle of the softball season. The pop can scholarship fund is a tribute to his daughter. Why doesn’t Ralph ever pick up a beer can? Well, his loving daughter, the good student and the softball player, was killed when a drunk driver hit her 17 years ago.

Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear Wednesdays and Sundays in the Tribune.