A fill-in father figure shows how yard work can support the troops

BELLEVILLE, Ill. -- Brian Kelly is just 5 – but he's already missing the old days. He and his dad used to love doing yard work together. Until last month, when his dad, Air Force Capt. Dan Kelly, got sent overseas.

His mother, Barbara, says Brian "just started weeping" when his dad said he had to leave to go overseas. 

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Brian Kelly, 5, and his dad, Air Force Captain Dan Kelly, doing yardwork before Kelly's deployment.

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It's just a 6-month deployment. But it still left Brian aimlessly leaf-blowin' in the wind – counting the days until his dad could come back and do yard work with him again.

Neighbor Dean Cravens used to watch them. He knew the boy missed his dad, but he didn't know how much until he got a knock at the door.

"Nobody ever comes to our front door, so I was like, OK, who could that be?" Dean said. "And you could see him through the window, it's Brian. And I just looked at him and I could tell he wanted to do yard work and I said, 'Sure, meet me around the garage.  We'll get some tools out and go.'"

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Brian Kelly stops by to ask if Dean Cravens can do yardwork with him.

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That was 6 weeks ago, and there has been a door knock virtually every day since.

"He kind of took it upon himself to adopt me to do the yard work," Dean said. 

Which is why today you'll find this father figure and son puttering around their yards in Belleville, Illinois – baggin' the clippings and blowin' their cares away.

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Brian Kelly and Dean Cravens working on Cravens' yard.

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By the way, Dean does have a day job. He works in IT. And he does have his own family, but he always makes time for Brian.

"Every single day," Barbara said. She said Dean has "never" sent Brian out and said, "Not today."

"We've been out there for hours at a time," Dean said. 

There are "probably" other things Dean could be doing, but he said, "I just like to see the smile on his face and see him happy doing it." 

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Brian Kelly and Dean Cravens.

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We always talk about supporting the troops. For most of us, it's a commitment that begins and ends at our bumper sticker.  But Dean Cravens shows us what it really means to serve those who serve.

"He's just there to help Brian get through the days," Barbara said. He's "absolutely" filling in. "That's exactly what he's doing," she said.

Sometimes yard work grows a lot more than grass.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, email us: OnTheRoad@cbsnews.com.

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Dean Cravens and Brian Kelly doing yardwork.

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  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.