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Play like Robert: Boy's classmates put in workday to remember their friend

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Robert Leonardi would have celebrated his 11th birthday Sunday.

On Monday, his fourth-grade classmates for Daly Elementary School remembered him by pulling on their work gloves and spending a part of the day picking hundreds of rocks along the trail that bears his name.

Robert Anthony Leonardi lost his life in a hit-and-run crash on Hamilton’s Golf Course Road in July 2019. Last fall, a generous gesture of a longtime Bitterroot family to offer access across their land was followed by an outpouring of volunteer help from the community to build the RAL Trail in the young boy’s memory.

The trail provides a safe way for both young and old to travel between Golf Course, Big Corral and Old Willow roads in Hamilton. The mile-long trail winds along the edges of an agricultural field that's been part of the Bitterroot Stock Farm for 135 years.

The six classes of the fourth graders came to the trail in two shifts. The rocks they picked off the hillside were used to armor side-cuts in the hillside and line the trail.

“I think we’ve solved the mystery of how the Egyptian pyramids were constructed,” Bryan Dufresne said with a smile as he watched the youngsters scramble up and down the hill. “It happened during a fourth-grade field trip.”

The second group of the 110 students also helped bury a bright yellow time capsule filled with letters to themselves, artwork and a couple of photos of Robert. They plan to move the huge boulder that sealed their cache when they graduate from high school.

One young girl’s letter talked about her love for art and her hope of becoming an art teacher when she grows up.

“Future self, you can decide if you want to move out of Hamilton, or not,” she wrote. The girl also said she worried about the end of the world and acknowledged to her future self that “I know less than you.”

The idea behind the workday was driven in large part by fourth-grade teacher Kathy Dickemore, said fellow Daly teacher Jessica Dufresne.

“We all really wanted to do something special,” Dufresne said. “This is Robert’s class. It was their last year at Daly. We wanted to do something in his honor.”

The teachers also wanted to make sure their students knew about the trail, which offered a much safer route to town from the heavily populated area around the busy Golf Course Road. A group of volunteers from the local LDS church had recently worked to lay gravel on the trail and cut down weeds.

“We talked to Peter three weeks ago,” she said. “He gave us this idea.”

Peter Van Tuyn and his wife, Ilona Bessenyey, joined Robert’s parents, Phil and Alyce, to offer encouragement and lend a hand to the enthusiastic youngsters who raced up the hillside gathering rocks and pulling knapweed.

The community is also planning an event in August called Robert’s Run that will raise money for children’s education and play. The run is either a 5K or 1-mile chip-timed run/walk on Saturday, Aug. 7. If running or walking isn’t your forte, organizers have added the option to “Play like Robert” where people fish, camp, swim, hike or whatever active event people like to do on the same day.

The Robert Leonardi Memorial Fund exists to honor Robert and support a variety of projects, including the RAL Trail and proposed expansion. The fund has also paid for tether-ball courts, basketball backboards and hoops, gymnasium scorecards, library reading series and the directed fourth-grade Yellowstone Education Funding program.

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