Doctors may say that Bill Vandergraph has a problem with his heart. After all, the pastor of Full Gospel Pentecostal Church of Alto Pass has had a couple of open heart surgeries and a few stents placed in arteries.

Sure, his anatomical heart may not be as strong as it used to be; but referring to the center of emotion, the spirit of a man and the capacity for sympathy, there's absolutely nothing wrong with his heart.

 For nearly all of his 72 years, Vandergraph has been caring for other people. Born and raised in Alto Pass, he says he knew as a child that his calling would be in ministry.

"I always wanted to be a preacher. I remember at 9 years old telling people that's what I wanted to be," he says.

After working for Caterpillar in Peoria for about five years, he followed through on his promise to pastor. For nearly 50 years, he's been in ministry with his wife, Shelba, whom he married just months after graduating from high school. Their life together has been one of service. As missionary pastors, mostly in Missouri, they started daycares and preschools in churches throughout the state.

The couple returned to Southern Illinois in the early 1990s when Vandergraph's father was ill. He was still serving as a pastor, but he also took on a job driving a school bus for the Cobden school district. He says he loved the job because it offered income without taking a great deal of time.

"I learned to enjoy it," he says. "As a school bus driver, you learn a lot about an area, its families and its status just by being around the children. It was very enjoyable and rewarding."

It's obvious that the Vandergraphs enjoy children. They have four biological children and, throughout the years, have had some 40 foster children.

"We saw the need and fostered children ranging from newborn to almost teenagers," he says. "Eventually, we adopted two and dropped out of fostering, but recently we've gotten back in for some very special reasons."

He says when they adopted the two children, they were already great-grandparents. The couple has a total of 17 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.

Eventually, he was asked to pastor Full Gospel Pentecostal Church of Alto Pass. It's a position he's had for eight years and one he enjoys.

"I really get fulfilled with teaching in the local church. I enjoy the writing and the preparation of sermons," he says. "I appreciate every day that I live. I'm not supposed to be doing all of this at this age. I get energy from doing things. I have to be busy and I have to find areas that will occupy my time."

The area of his ministry that has kept him busy for the last couple of years is leadership of Friends of the Cross. The organization is a non-profit group working to raise money for the restoration of the 111-foot cross on Bald Knob.

"I remember being here as a kid and going to sunrise services on Bald Knob as a kid," he recalls. "The cross has always played a part in our lives. Unfortunately, I think people got used to it and there was a lack of interest in taking care of it."

Vandergraph and his group have already raised more than $325,000 for the project. He says the goal is to raise an additional $300,000 in the next three years.

He says that the organization rose from conflicts within the cross' governing organization and the state of disrepair of the monument.

"I was really bothered by that and I realized I had to do something to get the cross fixed. It is a symbol of my faith; it's common to all Christians."

Vandergraph said he reached out to individuals, businesses and other churches to work together.

"This team got on board and never once have we had any division. Our only objective is to raise money for the cross; that's all we do. Everything focuses on the needs of the cross," Vandergraph says.

He said he hopes to raise enough money not only for the restoration of the cross, but also for the continued upkeep of the site, as well, and to add some additional services, including a chaplaincy program.

Vandergraph says his work with Friends of the Cross and being a pastor are just about loving people.

"I've always been a people person. I love children to those in nursing homes. I love being around people, even hurting ones. I know that hurting people need to be listened to and I enjoy listening. It gives me energy. I know there is a need there and I want to be where I'm needed," he says.

"I just cannot be isolated. There's plenty to do and so much that's not being done," he adds. "We, as Christians, tend to worry about things that are not essential. The whole church movement is supposed to be about other people."

As work on the cross progresses, there's a chance people will look on it as Vandergraph's legacy. That's not what he wants.

"If anything, I'd rather be remembered as a faithful pastor than anything else," he says. "That's very important to me."

Did you know?  As a Cobden bus driver, Vandergraph often took Appleknocker teams to other schools for games. The host school would often serve a meal for officials, coaches and bus drivers. One night on a trip to Ullin, he followed the "Welcome" signs, filled up a plate and sat down to eat - the only uninvited guest at a Shawnee High School alumni dinner.

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