Wreath project way to honor veterans

RON Shadley and some friends have placed Christmas wreaths on the graves of local veterans for the past six years. Given their dedication and the response they’ve been getting from the community, it’s a practice they will repeat not only this year but for many more to come.

For proof of that, consider that when the wreath volunteers continue their holiday tradition Dec. 10, they will have 800 of the decorations to place on all the graves in the two sections set aside for veterans at Garland Brook Cemetery and have several dozen leftover to distribute to families of veterans buried in other cemeteries around the county.

Not bad, considering that volunteers had only three wreaths to put in place when the project was started in 2009, and none of them were arranged over the graves of any veterans. Ron and the local volunteers are continuing to build on the tradition started by a Hope resident named Lou Broering that year.

It was a modest beginning, to say the least. Lou, who never served in the military but was one of the officers in a small group called Sons of the American Legion (SAL), had heard about a national program called Wreaths Across America, which had been started by the operator of a wreath-making company in Maine.

It began with the graves of veterans buried in a national cemetery near his business. By the time Lou learned of it, the program had grown to include the burial places of veterans across the country, including Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. By 2008, the number of graves adorned by the wreaths numbered more than 100,000.

Lou pitched his idea to Ron and Larry Durnil, another SAL member. Unfortunately, they got in a race with the clock that first year, owing to their late start. As a result they had to settle for a symbolic launch, holding a ceremony at the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans, where they placed a large wreath in front of the columns.

2010 was to be the year when Bartholomew County Wreaths Across America would take off. Lou and his team began to promote the project several months in advance. They envisioned raising enough money to place at least 100 wreaths on local graves.

Those plans were suddenly and tragically dashed Nov. 20, 2010, when Lou collapsed and died, less than three weeks before the wreath-laying ceremony.

Under normal circumstances, that would have spelled doom for the program, but Lou’s family, recognizing what it meant to him, asked that donations that might have been used to buy flowers for his funeral be directed instead to his Wreaths Across Bartholomew County project.

“That accounted for more than $470,” Ron recalled. “With that money we were able to purchase almost 50 wreaths. That coupled with money we had already raised allowed us to meet our goal of 100 wreaths.”

From that point the group has never looked back. Each year the number of wreaths ordered for local graves has increased, even considering that the price they have had to pay has risen.

This year’s distribution of 800 wreaths is a continuation of that process. Last year the group purchased 750 wreaths.

The project has enjoyed across-the-board support from a variety of donors. In 2013, the Columbus Board of Works, on the urging of then-Mayor Kristen Brown, approved an expenditure of $2,500 to purchase 250 wreaths.

That support continued through the rest of her administration and into the term of Mayor Jim Lienhoop, according to Ron. Support for the project was evidence that political opponents can find things in common.

There has also been generous support from the private sector, from organizations and institutions such as the Custer and Nugent foundations, Bartholomew County REMC, First Financial Bank Trust Department, Grammer Industries, the Moose Lodge, Stone Huggers Cemetery Restoration and the Eagles Lodge, which added another $1,000.

“We’ve also staged a number of fundraisers throughout the year,” Ron said. “For instance, we host a Big Lou Porkfest at the American Legion Post in honor of Lou Broering annually and weekly Saturday breakfasts at the legion post.”

Dozens of smaller gifts have come in from individuals and families. “We have five or six elderly widows of veterans who send in annual checks with requests that the money be used specifically for wreaths on the graves of their husbands,” Ron said. “In those cases, we determine the location of the grave and flag it so it will be easy to find when the volunteers put out the wreaths.”

There’s also been a great deal of hands-on support. In addition to the Sons of the American Legion members, the Bartholomew County chapter of the Young Marines has come forward to help place wreaths on the graves at Garland Brook.

Dozens of the decorations are also set aside for families of veterans who are not buried in Garland Brook. “We have local veterans who are buried in 30 cemeteries around the county,” Ron said. “We would love to personally place wreaths in these cemeteries, but there’s just so much our volunteers can do. When we place the wreaths at Garland Brook, we invite these families to join us, and we’ll provide them with wreaths to take to the graves of their loved ones.”

I am sure that there are ways to use money like that set aside for the wreaths project for more practical causes supporting veterans. However, those wreaths send a message that is as powerful as any veterans’ cause. They provide a sense of warmth to what otherwise might be a desolate scene, and they demonstrate that this is a community that cares for its veterans and their families.

How to help

People wishing to contribute to the Bartholomew County Wreaths Across America project can send checks made out to the Sons of the American Legion and mailed to Myers-Reed Funeral Chapel, 3729 25th St., Columbus, IN 47203. Attn: Ron Shadley.

Harry McCawley is a former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at hmcawley@therepublic.com