HOISINGTON – For a while, it seemed, the life of World War II veteran Neal W. Williams was forgotten.

He was buried in 1992 in the Hoisington, Kansas, cemetery – although, hailing from Missouri, it appeared he had no connections to the Barton County town. And, for more than 20 years, the remains of the man whose plane was shot down in Germany – he’d served for months as a prisoner of war – rested under a patch of Bermuda grass with nothing marking the spot but the complimentary metal sign.

However, the marker, tucked behind a large stone in the town’s cemetery, caught the eye of Phil Webb.

I saw that he didn’t have one,” said Webb, 59, about the gravestone. “And I figured he wouldn’t ever get one.”

So, this fall, Webb formed with wire and concrete a folk-art-style structure that gives more prominence to Williams’ life. It’s complete with a soldier, a World War II B-17G plane nicknamed the “Slow Ball,” an American flag, Williams’ war metals, and his birth and death.

It’s just one of a dozen or so three-{span}dimensional {/span}stones scattered about the cemetery – concrete pillars crafted individually for each person.

Some are relatives of families too poor to buy an expensive headstone. Some lived in Hoisington’s nearby segregated settlement of South Hoisington. A few Webb knew personally.

Many, however, are just random people – like Williams – who never had a permanent memorial.

“It’s a person,” he said of each gravesite. “They did have a life.”

Concrete and metal

Webb wasn’t always an artist – or not one of this magnitude. Art, he admits, might have been a bit of a midlife crisis.

“When I hit 40 or so, I thought I’d like to take an art class,” he said, adding it was the feeling of “You’ve got to do something with your life; you have got to be a better person.”

Webb’s concrete work began as sculptures that accent the garden at his and his wife Celia’s home. Some are of famous people, from singer Neil Young to George Washington Carver holding a peanut plant.

Six or seven years ago, Webb noticed the unmarked grave of Creola Paxton, a woman who died in 1947.

He doesn’t know why it tugged at him – but it did. Webb asked an elderly gentlemen in town if he ever knew Paxton.

“’She loved to sew,’” Webb said the man told him. “And that’s what I put on her monument.”{p dir=”ltr”}Over the years, he added more concrete to the cemetery’s barren plots. With each monument, Webb’s work become more detailed.{p dir=”ltr”}”Why that one – Creola’s – made me start, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s the history aspect of it. It is kind of fun to do it. I decided to do another one, then I kept on going. My inner artist talents came out.”

It’s tough for him to put his passion into clear words. Yet, his devotion shows as he walks through the cemetery on a rainy fall day.

He kneeled by the grave of a baby who died in 1955, pointing to the pink, empty bed with an angel sitting beside it. Just down the row is another monument for another baby who was born and died a year later. On top of the marker sits Jesus holding a swaddling infant.{p dir=”ltr”}For most, he tries to find out some of the details of their lives – but it isn’t always easy. Lela Bailey, an African American woman who died in 1976, had just a paragraph for an obituary in the local paper. It said she was the wife of Joe Bailey, who had preceded her in death.{p dir=”ltr”}Webb constructed a stone with Joe waiting at the top of the staircase in the clouds – holding a bouquet of flowers for his wife, who is standing at the bottom.{p dir=”ltr”}”I do like making things,” he said, then added, “but I don’t know that I’d call myself an artist.”{p dir=”ltr”}It’s not a business. He works full time at Hoisington’s Superior Essex, a global communications cable manufacturer.

{p style=”text-align: center;” dir=”ltr”}Passion for creation{p dir=”ltr”}For Webb, the monuments are crafted from pure love of creation.{p dir=”ltr”}Once in a while, someone will request his work. The wife of a man who died in 2014 at the age of 62 asked Webb if he’d be interested in making one of his folk art memorials for her husband. Webb obliged, and the headstone shows the man, who played in a band, on stage, playing a guitar.{p dir=”ltr”}”He was an artist,” Webb said. “She wanted a nontraditional headstone, and that is the reason I made it.”

However, for most who live in Hoisington, Webb’s folk art is unknown. At a few downtown businesses, residents didn’t recognize the pictures from the cemetery. Even a woman at the local funeral home didn’t know of a folk art gravestone artist living in town.{p dir=”ltr”}And that’s OK by Webb. The soft-spoken man isn’t after recognition.{p dir=”ltr”}On this fall day, he works in his shop, forming the likeness of a chain hand on a drilling rig from metal and concrete. It’s for a man he knew when he used to work in the oilfield. He died a few years ago and Webb hopes to place it on his grave this spring.{p dir=”ltr”}Through his research, he feels as if he knows all the people he has made stones for a little better.{p dir=”ltr”}That includes what little information he dug up on WWII veteran Neal Williams. Williams was born in Missouri in 1913. During World War II, he was an Army sergeant and part of the 351st Bomb Group. The B-17G that he was a flight engineer/top turret gunner on was shot down on May 28, 1944. Williams parachuted out, but was taken to a German prisoner-of-war camp.

He was eventually liberated and received a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and an air medal.

Williams married and divorced. After that, the trail of his life, Webb said, seems to disappear. He died in April 1992, with a funeral home in the small town of Warsaw, Missouri, officiating.{p dir=”ltr”}{span}”It’s a little bitty, dinky town surrounded by little{/span} {span}bitty, dinky towns,” said Webb. {/span}

A funeral home official still had a file on Williams, which had few details besides his birth and death dates and said he had been in the military and that the funeral home had shipped his body to Hoisington.

Webb never found an obituary.

“It’s interesting – how he got here,” Webb said.

Marci Penner, executive director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, said she and WenDee LaPlant discovered Webb’s work while researching Kansas’ towns for a new book.

It was a visual surprise, said Penner, who first stumbled upon Webb’s African American folk art monuments while exploring the cemetery.

Finding something not seen elsewhere in the state makes it a real treasure, she said.

“We have visited over a hundred cemeteries, and I’ve never seen anything like what Phil has done,” Penner said. “His art was sweet, personal and seemed like a beautiful tribute to each person.”