(ran East, South, West and Seminole editions)
When he hears the rumble of the garbage truck, 2-year-old Zachary Fredrick's face lights up. "Willie coming," he yells, as he runs outside, making sure he won't be too late to yank his elbow down and request a honk.
"Zachary will hear him from the house," said his mother, Shelly Fredrick. "He cries when it's not Willie."
Zachary and his family love their garbage man, Willie Freeman, who has been picking up trash bins in St. Petersburg for 39 years. To show their appreciation, the family called the city to find out their garbage collector's birthday so they could surprise him.
"I didn't want to ask him, "When is your birthday, Willie?' " Shelly Fredrick said. "(So) I called the sanitation department. We wanted to decorate our dumpster."
Freeman turned 60 Tuesday. So, four generations of the family waited outside their Edgemoor house Wednesday, eagerly awaiting his arrival. Earlier in the morning, they decorated their trash bin, encircling it with streamers, tying balloons to the lid and putting greeting cards from every family member atop the can.
Freeman's boss, Jerry Gordon, was eager to join the plot. He made up a story about construction to ensure that Freeman would stop by the Fredricks' house between 2 and 2:30 p.m.
"That's the first time anyone's ever come up with a birthday surprise," Gordon said. "I just told him he needed to pick up this side early because of construction."
Freeman didn't find construction but a family and his boss eagerly waiting to hug him. Smiling at the surprise, Freeman picked up Zachary Fredrick and let him honk the horn.
Freeman, who will retire next year, takes a special delight in warming children's hearts, waving to them and honking. He passes seven or eight kids on his route, including Zachary Fredrick, but the best show happens outside Shining Starz Preschool on 54th Avenue N and 16th Street when Freeman passes by.
"All them kids have a field day," Freeman said. "When I come, all of them run out and wave."
Freeman has his older admirers too. The five kids in Fredrick's house, ranging from 2 to 12 years old, all wrote birthday cards.
"Thanks, Willie, for picking up smelly garbage, honking, waving and being the best dumpsterman ever," wrote Shelly Fredrick's nephew, Tyler Cobb, 11, who also lives in the house. "It's going to stink when you retire in '05."
Fredrick and her family are already worried about Willie's upcoming retirement.
"Zachary would be devastated," said Breeanna Cobb, 12.
"We love our dumpsterman," Fredrick said. "When Willie gets ready to retire, we want to interview the new one."