When Billy Wilson attended Williamsville schools, he liked to walk a girl with Down syndrome from their school bus to her classroom.
When he was a staff sergeant stationed in Afghanistan, he liked to take candy and fix toys for young Afghan children, who ran up to him in anticipation whenever they saw him coming.
And when some of his soldiers had done a little too much celebrating at night, the 6-foot-3 Wilson liked to carry them back to their barracks.
William R. Wilson III liked to give back, and now his community has given something back to him.
On Monday morning, under sunny blue skies, most of the Lockport Expressway, or Interstate 990, got a fancy new name – the Staff Sgt. William R. Wilson III Memorial Highway.
Two to three dozen friends and relatives were on hand as two local state legislators, Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer and Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter, helped the family unveil the new name, honoring the 27-year-old war hero who was killed in Afghanistan in March 2012.
That 5.1-mile stretch of highway isn’t the only thing now bearing Wilson’s name.
After Monday’s ceremony, his father, William R. Wilson Jr., noted that since his son’s death, three of his soldiers have used either William or Wilson in their new babies’ names.
“They respected Billy that much,” he said. “They loved Billy. Billy took care of his men. It makes me proud. It makes us proud to carry on the Wilson name.”
The late soldier’s mother, Kimberly, has been similarly touched by the road’s renaming and three babies all bearing at least part of her son’s name.
“It means that Billy will never be forgotten,” she said. “He will be told about in many bedtime stories for generations, not just through ours.”
In several testimonials Monday morning, the younger Wilson was hailed as a kind soul, who acted as if he was everybody’s best friend, who looked out for others and was proud of both his hometown and his role as a soldier.
He also loved giving everyone a nickname, whether it was “old man” for his father, “Kiwi” for his mother, or “JR” and “Dub-Dub” for his brothers, Jeremy and Wesley.
So what would he call the stretch of highway with the lengthy new name?
His parents laughed, before they settled on “ ‘Illbilly’ Will Way.” It’s a highway that he and his friends often traveled near Wilson’s Getzville home, a place where he might have gotten a kick out of riding a motorcycle on a road with his name on it.
Not that the younger Wilson would have enjoyed all the fanfare and ceremony. Whenever he came home on leave, he, along with everyone in the neighborhood, was greeted by a sign saying, “Welcome Home, Billy.”
“He loved being a soldier, but he didn’t think he was a hero,” his mother said. “He was very modest.”
She knows how he probably would have reacted to Monday’s road-naming ceremony.
“Billy would probably be saying, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But he would think it’s pretty cool.”
Before Monday’s ceremony, Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican, drove the newly named highway, between Exits 3 (Audubon Parkway) and 5 (Millersport Highway) to appreciate the lasting tribute to Wilson and other fallen soldiers.
“I thought of how so many of our young people come back from war, either injured or killed,” Ranzenhofer said. “We just wanted to make sure we had a lasting memory for Billy, as a representative of what it means to serve your country.”
At a news conference just off Sweet Home Road near the highway, Walter, also an Amherst Republican, suggested how motorists can honor Wilson when they see the new signs.
“I hope that whenever people drive by, they will think about Billy, they will think about the Wilson family, and they will think about all the people who made a sacrifice for our country. They didn’t die in vain,” he said.
His family realizes that the newly named road isn’t in just Billy’s honor.
“I want people to remember every fallen soldier,” his mother said. “It has Billy’s name on it, but it’s for all fallen soldiers.”
And then, to celebrate a young man’s life, his family and friends – many wearing T-shirts with his photo and the slogan “Home of the Free, Because of the Brave” – adjourned to the nearby Amherst Pizza & Ale House, to enjoy the gorgeous day the way he might have, with a burger and a beer.
As Kimberly Wilson said of the whole day, “It is very important that nobody forgets Billy.”