WILMINGTON, Ill. — Holly Barker and Tully Garrett are working on a labor of love that reflects their love for each other.
Since October, the couple have been repairing the old Launching Pad restaurant, a stop along the old Route 66 highway most notable for being the home of the Gemini Giant.
The 30-foot-tall spaceman statue is a popular sight for Route 66 travelers, many of whom Barker and Garrett meet when they're at the Launching Pad getting it ready for a partial opening they hope to achieve by May.
The restaurant had been shut down for six years and falling into disrepair until Barker and Garrett came upon it during an antiquing excursion to Wilmington in September.
"We thought we were buying a restaurant, and it turned out we were buying much, much more," Garrett said, as he talked about what the restaurant means to them and the people of Wilmington who are eager to see it reopen.
"We want to keep the nostalgia," Barker said. "We want people to have the same feeling as when they came here."
Barker described the Launching Pad project as "a culmination of everything that's important to us."
They both said it strengthens their family. Barker has a teenage son. Garrett has two sons.
Restoring the Launching Pad, Barker said, "shows there's continuity of life. It doesn't stop. You always remember. We talk about Nancy and Jordan every day."
Barker, 45, lost her husband, Jordan, to cancer in 2014. He was only 41. Garrett's wife, Nancy, was only 46 when she died from cancer in 2015. He is 54.
Barker and Garrett met on a website devoted to grieving spouses in the summer of 2016.
Garrett lived in New Lenox, Illinois, and Holly in North Carolina. They became closer and started to see each other.
"After about a year, I said I can't stand to be away from him, so I pulled up stakes and moved here," Barker said.
"We're trying to blend the family, and we're all grieving," Garrett said. "We're not only trying to blend a family, but here we are - and who would have ever thought - starting a restaurant."
Garrett said it might have been sometime in the 1980s when he last saw the Gemini Giant. He wasn't thinking about the Route 66 icon when the couple drove to the town last fall because of its reputation as a destination for antique collectors.
"Her jaw dropped open," Garrett said of Barker's reaction when she saw the towering astronaut.
The Gemini Giant is a throwback to the 1960s, when the restaurant first opened as Dairy Delite. The name was changed to the Launching Pad in 1965 when the original owners brought in the spaceman, one of many "Muffler Men" fiberglass sculptures used in that decade for promotional purposes.
The Gemini Giant wasn't all Barker and Garrett saw that day.
There were people in the parking lot taking pictures. They stayed for a couple of hours and visited with the many people who stopped for pictures of the Gemini Giant. They tried to look over the restaurant, too, but windows were so covered with grease and dirt that they could not see inside.
"(Holly) said, 'Let's save it.' That's what we did," Garrett said.
The couple have met people from Egypt, Denmark, Australia, Japan and many other places around the world and in the U.S. who make the Gemini Giant one of their stops on Route 66 trips.
People stop by all the time. On a recent Monday, Carly Picha of Custer Park, Illinois, stopped in. Her mother, Carole Dummer, worked at the restaurant. Later, when Picha worked at a nursing home, she took care of an aunt, Dorothy, who was related to previous owners.
"It was all one big family," Picha said of the Launching Pad and the people who worked there.
The plan is to open part of the Launching Pad in May as a Route 66 welcome center with a gift shop and memorabilia museum. They hope to be serving hot dogs and ice cream sometime in the summer. But it would be sometime in 2019 before a full reopening of the restaurant. Local favorites, such as pizza burgers and banana milkshakes, will be on the menu.
Barker, who has started her own online grieving sites — Grief Anonymous and Grief Resource Network — said she wants the Launching Pad to be a gathering site for grievers and also a meeting place for the local community.
The couple have had a lot of local support for their project. Even out-of-towners driving by have stopped to tell their memories of eating at the Launching Pad.
"With this being shut down for such a long time now ... now that it's coming back, it's like bringing back a slice of their youth," Garrett said.