I wonder what Lou Broering would say during the holiday season if he were able to walk through the sections in Garland Brook Cemetery set aside for military veterans. I can only imagine that a smile would cross his face and remain there the rest of the day.
It would be a smile
Were he able to take that walk, he would see before him a sea of color — primarily red and green — the colors of more than 600 Christmas wreaths, each leaning against a headstone of someone who had served in the Armed Forces.
In all, 650 wreaths will be placed on veterans’ graves in Bartholomew County on Dec. 13. The greatest number will be in Garland Brook, but some will be provided to families upon request for veterans who are interred elsewhere.
It’s a pretty remarkable number, especially considering that it was only five years ago that Lou and a handful of other people gathered at the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans and placed a single large wreath in front of its columns.
That December day in 2009 marked the launch of the local version of the Wreaths Across America project. The beginning was modest because the organizers had only a few days to put it together.
It was Lou’s idea. The Hope man, who belonged to a group called Sons of the American Legion, had become aware of a national program that had been launched several years earlier.
Interestingly, the national project also had a modest beginning. In 1992, the owner of the Worcester Wreath Co. in Maine realized that he would be facing a surplus of wreaths because of over-production. Instead of consigning the extra greenery to a landfill, he shipped them to Arlington National Cemetery with a request that each be placed on the grave of a veteran.
There were several hundred wreaths put out that first year, but they were grouped in a section of the cemetery in such a way as to present an emotional photo of the headstones with their colorful wreaths all resting on a bed of undisturbed snow.
From those early photos, interest in the project grew. The hundreds of graves adorned with wreaths in 1992 grew to the thousands. The idea for placing the wreaths in Arlington was adopted by dozens of other national cemeteries across the country.
A national foundation was created, and support has grown to the point that this year every grave in Arlington National Cemetery — an estimated 235,000 — will be draped with a wreath. That mirrors what has taken place here in Columbus.
From that ceremony at the Memorial for Veterans in 2009, Lou began planning for the next year’s event. He raised enough money to purchase 133 wreaths. Sadly, he never saw any of them put in place. He died in November 2010.
It turned out that Lou was not alone in his dedication to the wreath project. Other members of the Sons of the American Legion, chiefly Ron Shadley, Frank Fox and Larry Durnil, elected to continue his work.
In 2011 the Sons of the American Legion raised enough money to purchase 254 wreaths. That number increased to 454 in 2012, and last year 520 wreaths were ordered.
Unfortunately the group lost another of its leaders. Frank Fox, who was the SAL commander, died in June.
The project’s momentum has been sustained in spite of those setbacks, but that’s due in large part to community support.
“We’ve been extremely fortunate to receive some major donations,” Shadley said. “This year the city of Columbus gave us enough money to purchase 250 wreaths at $12 each. In past years we’ve also gotten large donations from the Custer and Nugent foundations, and support from other organizations has been phenomenal. Groups like the Moose and Eagles lodges have been passing the hat at meetings or putting out collection jars.”
But there also have been individual gifts, like that from Helen Wildermuth, owner of Stone Huggers Restoration, which took on the task of restoring the headstones in Sandhill Cemetery just off 25th Street east of Columbus that had been vandalized in 2012.
“If we set aside the donations from the city and the foundations, Helen has made the biggest contribution to the project,” Ron said. “She truly has a wonderful respect for cemeteries and our veterans.”
Then there was Jessie Burbrink of Columbus, who contributed enough for four wreaths, asking only that one of them be placed on her husband’s grave.
There were also gifts that came in the form of donated labor. The Sons of the American Legion has received tremendous help from volunteers in placing the wreaths, particularly a contingent of the Young Marines, a local youth group patterned after the U.S. Marine Corps. Last year, one of the wreaths was placed on the grave of Logan Thompson, a Young Marine who was killed in an auto accident at the age of 10 in 2010.
The local Wreaths Across America project is dependent on that kind of community involvement, but it is a commitment that has to be renewed every year. Organizers hope the spirit that has moved those who have donated so far will spread to others, especially businesses and organizations.
I remember a conversation with Lou Broering a few months before his death. He had a dream that the project, which had begun so modestly, would grow to the point that the graves of every veteran in Bartholomew County would be adorned with a wreath during the holiday season.
Maybe those are the words of a dreamer, but the past four years have shown that dreams are possible.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Donations to the 2014 Wreaths Across America project in Bartholomew County can be made to Sons of the American Legion and mailed in care of Ron Shadley, 2621 N. Boohers Court, Columbus, IN 47203. Gifts are tax-deductible.
Wreaths will be placed at the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans on the courthouse square in a ceremony beginning at noon Dec. 13, followed by placement on graves in the veterans sections at Garland Brook Cemetery.