On a cold December day, a crowd of more than 1,000 volunteersfrom civilians and soldiers to toddlers and senior citizenswaits quietly, solemnly at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. In the distance they hear the low rumble of a tractor-trailer filled with 5,000 wreaths as it bursts through the mornings dense fog making its way toward them. As the trailer comes to a stop, it marks the completion of a 750-mile journey from Harrington, Maine (pop. 882), to Arlington, where volunteers prepare to honor our nations departed heroes by adorning their graves with wreaths.
An idea is born
The creator of the annual holiday tribute is Morrill Worcester, owner of the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington. In 1992, his company was constructing a second wreath factory and he knew from past experience that area artisans would stop by the construction site to offer their homemade wreaths for sale. Worcester thought he might need the extra wreaths, so he instructed his carpenters to buy any of the holiday ornaments that artisans brought by.
I had forgotten all about it until Monday, Dec. 10, when a carpenter asked me what I wanted him to do with all the wreaths. I didnt need them! says Worcester, 56, with a laugh. It was too late in the season, but they were nice, fresh wreaths, so I thought of Arlington.
Worcester first visited Arlington National Cemetery when he was 12 years old. As a paperboy, he won a trip as part of a contest that rewarded his outstanding sales efforts. More than 40 years later, he still can recall the feeling that flooded over him when he looked out across the sea of white marble tombstones.
The enormity of it all hit me right then, Worcester says. It stuck with me, just how very, very lucky we (Americans) are.
To get things started, he called a friend, who donated a tractor-trailer to transport the wreaths, and then got the OK from officials at the cemetery to adorn the graves with the wreaths. With the help of a dozen friends, Worcester donated 5,000 wreaths that were laid on the headstones during a six-hour period in December 1992. It was the beginning of what is now known as the Arlington Wreath Project.
A growing effort
As word spread about Worcesters efforts, more and more volunteers arrived in Arlington each year to help. In 2006, more than 1,000 volunteers completed the wreath-laying efforts in less than an hour. But the wreaths arent laid in haste. Each volunteer takes time to read the name on the stone. Some kneel and pray. Some talk, and many weep.
Volunteers always stand and turn to pay respect when a horse-drawn funeral procession brings another fallen hero home to rest. They watch until the sound of horse hooves fades in the distance before returning to their wreaths.
Judy Gibbons of McClean, Va., has volunteered for the last three years. Because her father, brother, husband and son were all military men, she believes its only fitting. Is there anything more important happening in Washington (D.C.) today? asks Gibbons, who appreciates the dedication Worcester has to honoring deceased soldiers.
And dont bother sending Morrill money for the project, Gibbons adds, youll only cost him money in postage because hell send it right back. So if you want to help, you have to come out and help.
Each year a section of the 624-acre cemetery that doesnt get many visitors is chosen to receive the wreaths. Even within the section, volunteer Hannah Grondin, 11, of Skowhegan, Maine (pop. 6,696), looks for someone special. v I put my wreaths on unknown soldiers, says Hannah, a second-year volunteer. I think how lonely they must be because no one comes to visit and how sad their family must be not knowing whether theyre alive or dead.
Hannah is part of teacher Larry Rosss fifth- and sixth-grade gifted classes at the Margaret Chase Smith School in Skowhegan. Ross has been bringing 40 students with him to help lay wreaths each year since 2003. But before he sends them out, Ross holds up a photograph of Morrill Worcester as a 12-year-old paperboy and says to his students, Four words. Thats all it will take to be great. Four words: See wow. Be wow. See great things. Go out and do great things.
Wreaths Across America
Worcester received so many e-mails from people across the nation asking him to do something at national cemeteries in their hometowns that last year his organization unveiled Wreaths Across America. During the Arlington wreath laying ceremony, with help from the Civil Air Patrol and other civic-minded groups, special ceremonies were held at 230 state and national cemeteries and veterans monuments across the country. At the Biloxi National Cemetery in Mississippi, the ceremonies included a prayer and moment of silence, while at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne (pop. 1,443), volunteers carefully laid 100 wreaths on gravestones.
In Phoenix, the Civil Air Patrol organized a ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona. A bugler signaled the opening of the ceremony by playing the national anthem, followed by a moment of silence and the placing of five wreaths, each representing a branch of military service, next to their respective flags.
Wayne Ellis, the cemeterys director, says that his decision to participate in the Wreaths Across America project was an easy one. Its a good program, Ellis says. It helps honor our veterans, and it brings public attention to facilities like these.
At the same time the Phoenix ceremony took place, nearly 80 people gathered at the Kansas Veterans Cemetery in WaKeeney (pop. 1,924) to lay 60 wreaths on gravestones.
About 40 families of buried veterans here were present, says Heidi Goff, the cemeterys manager. When I learned of the project, I asked Christ the King Catholic Church to help raise funds to buy wreaths for every veteran laid to rest here. More money than we actually needed was raised, so that money will carry over for next year.
Goff says she was deeply moved watching family members lay the wreaths on the veterans graves. Its such a beautiful, visual tribute, she says. It brings our veterans to the forefront. And thats exactly who Worcester wants in the spotlight.
Im no one special, Worcester says. It just makes me feel special to be allowed to be part of something at Arlington. The soldiers resting there, our soldiers today-they are the special people. They are the heroes.