With practiced fingers, Lois Csontos-Nielsen feeds the tattered edge of a U.S. flag into her sewing machine. Stars and stripes emerge from the other side as good as new—ready to fly again over the graves of soldiers at Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery in Rittman (pop. 6,314).
Each Friday for the last 10 years, Csontos-Nielsen, 76, has packed up her sewing machine in nearby Sharon Township and driven to the cemetery to volunteer her time. Dozens of flags await her attention—along with the occasional stray button on the uniforms of veterans who perform military honors for funerals.
“I keep a little emergency sewing kit here,” Csontos-Nielsen says. “There’s always a little mending to do.”
She’s repaired more than 1,300 flags over the years—enough to inspire a fellow volunteer to nickname her “Betsy” after America’s most famous flag seamstress, Betsy Ross. Francis Elmerick, who helps raise and lower the cemetery’s flags, recounts how a visitor once asked what happened to those that become frayed. “I told them, ‘Betsy Ross repairs all these flags,’” recalls Elmerick, 82, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Merchant Marine.
He was joking, of course, but the nickname stuck.
“There are some guys who think that’s my real name,” Csontos-Nielsen says with a laugh. “And that’s fine with me.”
The cemetery is a meaningful place for Csontos-Nielsen, whose second husband, Don Nielsen, died in 2005 and was buried at the site. Her first husband, Chester Csontos, died in 1999 after 45 years of marriage. Both men served in the U.S. Coast Guard and worked for veterans causes.
One of the nation’s 130 national cemeteries, Western Reserve has conducted about 13,000 burials since opening in 2000—sometimes up to 10 a day.
Its signature Avenue of Flags features 50 U.S. flags that line the main entrance leading to a central plaza. Exposure to rain, sun and the steady winds that blow across the picturesque hilltop cemetery weakens flag fabric and unravels hems, requiring periodic mending.
“Most of the flag is still good, but you can’t have them up there tattered,” Csontos-Nielsen says.
Soon after the cemetery opened, a staff member asked her if it was possible to rescue fraying flags that otherwise would have to be retired. Csontos-Nielsen, who learned to sew in the first grade and made clothes for her three daughters as they were growing up, happily took up the task.
“It’s a privilege to be able to do this—a bit of a way to pay back for what we have,” she says.
The repairs generally are simple. Using her own thread and supplies, Csontos-Nielsen trims off the frayed edge, folds a new hem, and stitches it tight with three passes on her Pfaff sewing machine. When extensive damage calls for a patch, she uses fabric salvaged from flags that were beyond repair. Most take only 10 to 15 minutes to fix.
While Csontos-Nielsen downplays her contribution, former cemetery director Maria E. Garza does not. “In her years of voluntary work, mending flags has been a huge cost savings to us,” Garza says. “I can’t even begin to estimate. However, I can certainly say it is in the thousands of dollars.”
In addition to her seamstress work, Csontos-Nielsen maintains volunteer records, answers the telephone and responds to questions concerning veterans benefits. She also volunteers each week at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center in nearby Brecksville, making beds and washing clothes. Over the last 10 years, she’s logged 6,000 volunteer hours between the cemetery and hospital.
“It enriches your life to get out and do something for someone else that you’re not getting paid for,” she says.