Monday, May 14, 2007 | 7:04 a.m.
In the world of garbage, longtime North Las Vegan Cleo Williams Jr. is king of the heap.
More than 1,000 times a week - without causing an accident or injury - Williams deftly slides the spearlike forks projecting from the front of his garbage truck into the sleeves of industrial-sized trash bins, hoisting them over his cab and dumping their sometimes-unspeakable contents into the belly of his behemoth vehicle.
This is how safe, conscientious and courteous Williams is at his job: He was named 2007 Driver of the Year in the large commercial garbage truck category by the Environmental Industry Association, the trade group that represents the nationwide trash-hauling and recycling industry.
The award came with a $500 prize. His bosses at Republic Services threw in another grand and an extra week of vacation for good measure.
"I compare Cleo's job to driving a Sherman tank in urban warfare," said Republic President Bob Coyle, noting that Williams' truck weighs 25 tons full and 15 tons empty. "Other motorists are not always polite to him. He has to be one of the best defensive and courteous drivers out there."
It probably helped that he learned from one of the best - his father, Cleo Williams Sr., who retired after 30 years as the garbage truck operator for Silver State Disposal and, later, Republic Services.
"My dad was my mentor. He had a passion for this work," Williams said. "I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
After graduating in 1986 from Western High School, where he played football, Williams joined the local waste management company and soon was teamed with his father.
"On our first time out, after watching him make it look easy to operate the front-loader, he asked me if I wanted to try, and I said to myself, 'Yeah, I can do this, no sweat,' " Williams said.
"I tried several times but I couldn't get the fork into the sleeves. It took me months before I got it down. I got a real appreciation for how hard my dad's job was."
Dad retired in 2002. And son was a good student.
For two decades the younger Williams, quiet and unassuming, has done his job without hitting another vehicle or otherwise injuring anyone - part of the criteria by which the judges deemed him the best in the United States at his job.
Williams, who earns a union wage of $24.34 per hour, was nominated as a finalist for the award in 2005 but came up short. With an estimated 136,000 garbage industry trucks on the road across the nation, driver of the year is one difficult award to win.
His customers value his attitude.
"One day ... I was lifting something heavy into our Dumpster when Cleo arrived," Lillian Hicks of Storage West, a self-storage business, wrote: "Before I knew it, he was right there out of his truck to assist me. Not too many people would do that."
Susan Clinton, executive director of Regency Palms, an assisted living facility, described Williams in a letter as "prompt, pleasant and helpful ... He goes out of his way to make sure his customers are well-served."
"The most rewarding part of my job comes when the customers tell me how much they appreciate the work I do," Williams, 38, says.
Having won the driver-of-the-year award, Williams says he has three more goals - to become a supervisor, to surpass his father's longevity mark at the company and to win driver-of-the-year again next year.