OGDEN – Five years ago, when the late Dennis Collins of Urbana realized that he was dying of cancer, he told his family that he wasn't afraid to die. His biggest regret, he told them, was that he wouldn't get to see his grandchildren grow up.
"He said he didn't want his grandkids to forget about him," said his daughter, Kim Nigg of Ogden. "He asked us to talk about him and not let them forget who he was. He wanted us to tell them he loved them, and tell them he was going to miss them."
Nigg and her sister, Stacy Orcutt of St. Joseph, keep that promise every day with their children Clayton Nigg, 9, and Kambry and Collin Orcutt, 7 and 2.
The families talk about Mr. Collins as often as possible, keep many pictures of him around their houses and sleep in beds made by him in his woodworking shop.
And if they're lucky enough to find a penny – well, that's an extra special reminder of the man who died too young at the age of 55.
Nigg explained that after her father's death on June 16, 2000, an aunt sent them a poem that talked about angels tossing pennies from heaven.
"It said that they're special pennies and when you find one, it means that whoever's in heaven is thinking of you," Nigg said.
So now if they find a penny they pick it up and hold it dear.
"We call them Papa's pennies," Clayton said.
They've found them in some strange spots – even inside pajamas and on vacation in Mexico.
Now, Clayton and Kambry have turned their attention to collecting change to help a young man who's walking across the country to raise money for cancer research.
They met Eric Latham, a 24-year-old from Richmond, Va., last June when he stopped to camp for the night at Ogden on his 3,500-mile trek to San Francisco. Kim Nigg heard Latham was in Ogden so she took Clayton and Kambry to the Ogden Park to meet him. He was pitching a tent for the night and after talking to him and hearing about his mission to raise money for the American Cancer Society, Nigg invited him to spend the night with her family. Stacy and their mother came to meet Latham, too, and the entire family formed an instant friendship with the walker.
The next morning, the children and Kim Nigg joined Eric in his walk as he left Ogden and headed to St. Joseph. Stacy and her mother, Cindy Collins of Urbana, met him near High Cross Road on the east side of Urbana and walked with him to Carle's Cancer Center.
And the next day, Clayton and his mother joined Latham as he walked from Mahomet to Mansfield.
They've kept in touch with him by cellphone and followed his daily journal on his Web site. Latham is in California and he plans to finish his journey on Saturday. To date, he's raised more than $15,000.
Clayton and Kambry have put coin cannisters in their classrooms at St. Joseph and Ogden grade schools to send to Latham, and teachers and students have been generous in their support. Clayton's fourth-grade teacher, Jill Robbins, canvassed her neighborhood and collected a heavy box of change, too.
But the best part comes Thursday, when the young cousins and their mothers and grandmother will board a plane and fly to San Francisco. They will join Latham as he walks across the Golden Gate Bridge. Their hope, like so many others, is that some day other families will not lose loved ones to cancer.
The walk across the bridge will be an emotional time for the family, Kim Nigg said.
And of course they will once again keep their promise to their dad, papa and husband as they think of him and pay special tribute to his memory on the historic bridge.
"We're going to be so proud to be there," Stacy said. "Proud and sad at the same time."