Where Did Those Adopt-a-Highway Signs Get Their Start?

It started with a highway official in East Texas who took litter very personally.

Editor’s Note: In a healthy society with freedom of speech, free enterprise, and Democratic institutions, one person with a quirky idea can effect change. Reader’s Digest is partnering with WeThePurple.org to republish articles from our archives that dramatize and revive patriotic enthusiasm about democracy and its core values. This piece from April 1992 describes the humble origins of the adopt-a-highway program, a grassroots effort to keep roads clean. Today, similar programs operate in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. In New York State alone, some 5,000 miles of roads are kept litter-free through the program.

Driving North toward Tyler, Texas, James R. “Bobby” Evans couldn’t miss the fast-­moving red pickup truck crammed with trash. From its open tailgate, empty cement bags, plastic wallboard wrappings, and nail car­tons spewed all over the highway.

Evans is a tall, thoughtful man with an almost professorial man­ner. Confrontation is not his style. But now he gripped the wheel of his car in frustration. Before he could catch the truck, it sped away.

Evans takes litter very personal­ly. He is the top highway official in an eight­-county area of East Texas about the size of the state of Con­necticut. As district engineer, he is charged with keeping 3600 miles of highway in good repair. In three decades, he had given hundreds of talks and film presentations to combat littering. But nothing seemed to make much of an impact.

As he drove, Evans saw a road­side where motorists had tossed beer cans, fast­-food cartons, soda bottles and even disposable diapers. Texas spent almost $25 million a year [roughly $46 million today] collecting such trash, and costs were going up 17 percent annually. Still fuming about that pickup truck, Evans resolved to renew his efforts.

In a speech a few weeks later, Evans challenged a civic club to “adopt” one of the highways lead­ing into Tyler, to clean it up on a regular basis. His appeal got little reaction. Something was missing, Evans thought. Back at his office, he called in public-­affairs officer Billy Black. As they talked about the adopt­-a-­highway idea, that missing piece suddenly sprang into place. Why not credit a cooperating organization by name? Soon a plan emerged:

  • Each group would be ac­knowledged with a bold sign, marking the beginning and end of the adopted segment of highway.
  • Volunteers would agree to clean their stretch four times a year.
  • The Highway Department would provide safety training, re­flective vests and plastic bags, and would pick up the bags of litter afterward.

One obstacle remained: Evans had no authority to erect the signs.

So he called Deputy Director Henry Thomason and described the plan.

There was a long pause. “Bob­by,” Thomason said, “sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.” That was all Ev­ans had to hear. Billy Black started talking up the idea in public.

The Tyler Civitan Club was the first to call. Its members wanted to adopt a two­-mile stretch of High­way 69 just north of the city. On March 9, 1985, motorists no­ticed a bold, blue-­and­-white, four-­by-­eight­-foot sign on the roadside.





About 20 members of the Civi­tan Club mustered for their first cleanup. They strapped on orange vests, pulled on gloves, took spiked sticks, and began picking up.

Soon after, the Smith County Adult Probation Department had signed up for Highway 31 west of town, giving those sentenced to community service a significant new way to make amends. Within a few months, more than 50 groups had enrolled—among them the Boy Scouts, two garden clubs, Future Farmers of America, and a Tyler Junior College fraternity group—­all lured in no small degree by the public recognition those bold blue-­and-­white signs conferred.

When Doris Ward, senior vice president of the NBC Bank in Mis­sion, Texas, read about the pro­gram, she persuaded a dozen of her colleagues to join in. The morning of their first  cleanup, the group—including the bank’s president—fanned out along three miles on Highway 495. As Ward put it later, ­”When it was over, we were hot ­and dirty, but we knew we had done something worthwhile.”

The program spread rapidly to citizens’ groups to all 254 Texas counties, involving 700 groups and more than 1000 miles of highway. In its first year, the Adopt­-a­-Highway program, combined with a statewide media campaign, cut litter cleanup costs by 29 percent. Today, 3973 groups have adopted nearly 8000 miles of highway in the state.

A member of the Kiwanis Club discovered a $1000 war bond some­one had inadvertently tossed away. It was restored to its rightful owner.

In previous cleanups, said volun­­teer Woody Eastman of the Keep Brazoria County Beautiful Association in Lake Jackson, “we found everything but the kitchen sink.” Then on our spring Adopt­-a-­High­way cleanup, we did find a kitchen sink. We also found goggles, pants, a shirt, a hat, and a boot. There should be a naked man with one boot running around somewhere.”

Louisiana State Senator Richard Neeson was driving through East Texas one day in the summer of 1985 when he saw an Adopt­-a­-Highway sign. He pulled over and asked his wife to take his picture alongside it. When the Neesons returned to Louisiana, he brought a two­-foot­-square blowup of the photo to the capitol, showing it to anyone who would look.

As vice chairman of the High­way and Transportation Commit­tee of the state legislature, Neeson pushed through a bill to encourage citizens’ groups to adopt highways while also protecting the state from liability suits.

First to sign up was the Lake­land Ladies, a homemakers’ club based in New Roads, La. “While we were cleaning up,” says former president Ruby Harriman, “people slowed down, honked their horns, and waved. Our group was made up mostly of 40­ to 6o­-year-­old women. We hadn’t been honked at in years!”

Within a year, 300 other groups had adopted more than 600 miles of highway. Today 1200 organiza­tions care for more than 12 percent of the state’s roads. “Of all the bills I’ve passed,” says Neeson, “this one has meant the most to me.”

At the Cutter Biological Divi­sion of Miles, Inc., in Clayton, N.C., project engineer Fred Wall belongs to a team of plant executives and workers who go shoulder to shoulder four times a year, tidying local farm roads. “The first time we did it,” says Wall, “we collected 67 bags of trash, 12 tires, and seven bags of aluminum cans. Last July we got just 32 bags, no tires. Things are improving!”

Wall thinks the public is becom­ing sensitized. “They see our el­bows and rear ends in the ditches, picking up their trash, and say, ‘What a dirty dog l am!'”

Ira Mueller of Durham, a young mother who runs the Durham Ritz Touchless Carwash, gets her col­lege­-student employees to clean up parts of Routes 15 and 501. “I hide green tennis balls in the weeds,” Mueller says, “and anyone who finds one gets a $10 reward. It’s a small motivation, but it works.”

Oklahoma State Beautification Coordinator Joanne Orr tells the story of her boss, who was driving along Interstate 35 northeast of Oklahoma City one Saturday morning and saw tuxedo­-clad young men picking up litter. They were members of Delta Gamma Sigma fraternity at Oklahoma Christian College, who’d been out at a Friday­-night banquet.

Orr collects favorite Adopt­-a-­Highway signs, but says it’s going to be hard to top the one she saw on a two-­mile stretch near Austin, Texas. The fan club’s sign pro­claims, “ELVIS, THIS IS FOR YOU!”

Meanwhile, up along Bussard Ridge, near Bonners Ferry, Idaho, Virginia Prieber patrols 16 miles of Highway 95. Wearing a flowered floppy hat, logging gloves, and boots, Prieber, 55, a retired medi­cal technician, collected five truckloads of bottles and cans in 1991—2300 pounds in all. That’s in addition to the regular trash she picked up and hauled to a dump­ster in the settlement of Good Grief, Idaho. On one memorable occasion she found a sack of rubbish with its owner’s name on receipts inside. She wrapped up the trash and mailed it back to him, first­-class.

Hardly a day goes by without a phone call or letter that tells Bobby Evans what an extraordinary suc­cess has grown from his brain­storm. “Billy Black and I keep hearing that attitudes have changed,” he says. “Once you’ve picked up roadside trash, you are unlikely to dump any there your­self. I think even the fellow in that red pickup is coming our way.”

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Edward Ziegler
Edward Ziegler is a former editor at Reader's Digest and author of the book Emergency Doctor.