Bill Blyshak paints rocks.
He paints rocks for his doctor, his dentist, the woman at Wal-Mart who helped him with his wristwatch. Of course, he paints rocks for his family. His wife, Helen, has at least a dozen.
They’re as small as a quarter or no bigger than a coffee-cup saucer, with intricate brush strokes Blyshak needs a magnifying glass to paint them. And they’re all incredibly personal, incredibly sentimental, all geared to stoke good memories for the specific person Blyshak has in mind.
So instead of playing golf, Blyshak paints rocks as a hobby. He doesn’t consider himself an artist. He sees painting rocks as fun. Sometimes, it takes him two days. Other times, it takes him a week. He knows. He keeps records, doodle books, and he knows how many he has completed.
More than 600. But why? Let’s start in a classroom.
Blyshak worked for 34 years as a high school science teacher at the same school in Clearwater, Fla. He taught biology, human anatomy and physiology. His daughter, Lisa, one of his two children, remembers seeing him sitting at home and sketching a bone, an organ or clutch of muscles.
From those sketches sprang chalk drawings on a blackboard. But Blyshak wanted to do more. In Reader’s Digest, in an anecdote at the bottom of the page, he saw a rock bearing the painted words, “Please Turn Me Over,’’ with the other side saying “Thanks, I Needed That.’’
“Hmmm,’’ Blyshak thought. “That’d be nice to paint that on a rock and give it to somebody.’’
So, he got started. He got rocks from everywhere, and after he retired from teaching in 1992, he continued. Then, when he and Helen moved to North Carolina in 2006 to be closer to Lisa, her husband and their two children, he didn’t stop.
Blyshak is now 84, and even with an arthritic neck and an arthritic right arm, he won’t stop. See, he’s right-handed. So, sometimes, it hurts. Still, he paints. An hour. Two hours. Maybe three. He’ll lose track of time until he hears Helen holler from downstairs, “Bill, are you up there?’’
He hollers back. Helen doesn’t have to ask. She knows what he’s doing.
“My wife doesn’t appreciate it as much,’’ he tells me, laughing. “But I’m trying to be nice to somebody. I could sit home and read a book or work in the yard, but this (painting rocks) provides more satisfaction. And this is something that is permanent, something they can keep and appreciate.
“I’ve got a friend up the street who says, ‘Bill, why don’t you sit and talk?’ and I say, “I can’t. I got things to do. There’s not enough time in the day.’’’
But there is time to figure out where all this niceness first took root. It’s from Blyshak’s childhood.
He was the youngest of eight, a kid from small-town Pennsylvania. He was cared for by a troupe of brothers and sisters because his family had it tough. His dad worked with steel girders, ran a grocery store out of their home and toiled away as a laborer in a tin-can factory. He died from cancer when Blyshak was 5. His mom never remarried.
Everyone worked. They had to. His four older brothers later fought in World War II. One didn’t come back. The three who returned pitched in and paid for Blyshak’s first year of college before he enlisted in the Air Force and served four years during the Korean War.
Blyshak remembers those sacrifices, those moments, like the one in a single-screen cinema where he flirted with the girl seated in front of him. Sixty years ago this fall, they got married.
That’s why Blyshak paints rocks. He wants to show people his appreciation, create a good memory or give someone in need a pick-me-up. He remembers how it felt.
“Nobody expects it,’’ he says. “It’s like the lady at Wal-Mart. She was bowled over. You can’t put a price on that.’’
That’s how I found out about Blyshak.
It must’ve been early January when someone I know hollered at me in a parking lot and told me about the rock painter off Lake Jeanette Road. Like many ideas I find, I stuck it in an online file as a reminder. And there, it stayed. For months.
Then came my mother’s death. I wrote about that, and I heard from readers. A week or two later, I got a call from one of our security guards downstairs, and he told me someone had left me something at the front desk. When I came down, I found a rock and a letter.
It was from Blyshak.
“You don’t know me,’’ he wrote, “but I know you. …’’
Like that lady from Wal-Mart, I was bowled over. Still am.
A month ago Tuesday, in a South Carolina cemetery shrouded by oaks, I buried my mom between my brother and my father.
A tough memory. Always will be. So, I keep my rock close. I see the quill, the hand-painted letters of my name and the wreath of leaves and grapes, and I remember this gift from a stranger when life felt way too dark.
It doesn’t anymore. At least not right now. See, that rock, that painted rock, it does help.
Contact Jeri Rowe at (336) 373-7374 or find him @JeriRoweNR on Twitter or www.facebook.com/jeriroweNR.
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