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York father's cross to mark monument maker's grave

A monument for Bill Wiley stands in the Rose Hill Cemetery in York. Wiley, who made cemetery stones for others for more than 50 years, died Sunday.
A monument for Bill Wiley stands in the Rose Hill Cemetery in York. Wiley, who made cemetery stones for others for more than 50 years, died Sunday.

YORK -- Rose Hill Cemetery in York sits right across tiny Cemetery Street from a business called Wiley Brothers Granite and Marble Works.

The business has made monuments for more than 60 years. Mostly, gravestones.

For the past 50-plus years, it's been run by a red-haired dynamo about 5 feet 3 inches tall named Bill Wiley.

So many in Rose Hill Cemetery, and other cemeteries, are buried under Wiley stones.

William Wiley Jr., called Bill, had offices at one time in 12 places around the South. People are buried beneath Bill Wiley headstones within a half-day's car drive in all directions from York.

This was a man whose monuments sit in front of the Moss Justice Center, at Piedmont Medical Center and as granite steps along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The archway at the Rock Hill Galleria is a Bill Wiley. One of his most well-known is at Lakeview Memory Gardens between Clover and York: the memorial in honor of war dead from York County.

Not only did Bill Wiley give and make that stone -- for free -- to honor those heroic men, he etched the names himself. Or later his son, Billy, etched the names. Or a grandson.

"Must have cost $15,000 all those years ago, and Bill just donated it," said York's T.J. Martin, a Korean War veteran who was a main mover in the 1980s to get the monument built. "He made it happen."

When three York County servicemen died in this Iraq War, before successive Memorial Days in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Wiley etched the new names on that monument.

"If these men didn't do what they did, I wouldn't be standing here," Bill Wiley told me three days before Memorial Day 2006, when he was 74 years old, about the soldiers who were gone. On that day, Bill Wiley's shoes were covered with dust, his shirt and tie had dust on them. He had been at work that day like all days. "They died for all of us."

Bill Wiley donated so much over the years. He rarely, if ever, said no.

A man who makes gravestones that last forever knows a good deed lasts a long time.

The Wiley Brothers office is in an old stone building built by the Wiley men themselves, with the workshop out back. Isabelle Workman, bookkeeper for the business for so long, showed the place off Wednesday morning in the cold. She stepped on dirt floors, over old pieces of stone. At first glance, the place must be a ruin.

No.

"A place of magic," Workman said. "Here is where Bill did it all."

The workshop -- a ramshackle, dusty place where shafts of sunlight come through the cracks in the metal walls, is made of tin, and a few wooden beams. Inside is filled with granite and marble, in all shapes and sizes and pieces. Tens of thousands of families had their loved ones' names, days of life and death, deeds, heroics, chiseled in stone in that drafty place by Bill Wiley.

What Bill Wiley did all his life, what he got from his late father before him, was the chance to honor somebody or something forever with that granite.

"Granddaddy just loved this place. I grew up around it, and he never got tired of it," said Rose Connelly, a granddaughter of Bill's.

Billy Wiley, Bill's only son -- Billy's real name is William Wiley III, but he certainly never has been called that -- helped in the business for years. He would travel on weekends away from his insurance business, doing what his father did -- etching monuments.

There was always one piece of granite that Bill Wiley never sold. It was crafted by hand with hammer and chisel, blue-gray granite that cannot be touched by a machine. Sculpted by Bill's late father, a cross, about 6 feet tall and a couple feet wide. It was the last piece Bill Wiley's father ever did before dying in 1969.

"Beautiful," said Billy Wiley. "For years, all Pop said was we could never sell that one, it was special."

Well, it turned out that Bill Wiley knew what he wanted for that old stone. He told Billy on Saturday, and immediately Billy Wiley and his sons sandblasted the name "Wiley" on it. Then the men took it across Cemetery Street, to the farthest spot at the back. And there, within sight of where Bill Wiley crafted so many headstones, right next to a stone Bill Wiley made for a doctor in 2002, the Wiley boys put up the cross made from Elberton, Ga.-quarried granite.

On Sunday, at a Columbia hospital, Bill Wiley died.

On Wednesday, an uncountable throng crammed into that front stone building that is the Wiley Brothers offices. Like Workman the office manager, most wore black. Some cried, some laughed, all remembered.

Then all walked across Cemetery Street to a graveside service, to see the headstone Bill Wiley kept for himself.

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