Home Homepage Featured One small town’s ceremony reflects a nation’s gratitude

One small town’s ceremony reflects a nation’s gratitude

By David Rogers. May 24, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Walking through a cemetery moves mountains.

COVER IMAGE: From left to right, members of the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners Albert Yount, David Harwood, and Sue Sweeting formed one team to identify veterans graves in one section of Woodlawn Cemetery. Photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News. CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO ENLARGE.

As Blowing Rock resident David Harwood shared on Saturday while participating in a ceremony to place flags at the grave sites of military veterans, at Woodlawn Cemetery, “I thought I was coming out here to help, but this has proven very humbling and very emotional. You don’t necessarily realize the percentage of our community that has served until you walk among these headstones.”

Harwood explained that his late father, Graham, was a military veteran, which heightened the personal takeaways from his involvement with Saturday’s observance of Memorial Day.

I thought I was coming to help out, but found this humbling and very emotional.

Along with a dozen other Blowing Rock volunteers, Harwood navigated through the maze of headstones and memorials. Notations and symbols on the tombstone markers of those interred below indicated who had served in one of the branches of the armed forces, contributing to a solemn environment for the workers on this special day of recognition and remembrance.

Our friend and Rotarian Hovey Scoggins served in the U.S. Army

The tradition of placing flags at grave sites in Watauga County may have originally been started by members of the American Legion, but with added energy from the Rotary Club of Blowing Rock. There were years when Rotarians Bill Parker, Jim West, Van Joffrion and Ron Oberle led the effort, along with American Legion Commander Albert Yount. In more recent years, the ceremony welcomes a broader participation from town leadership.

“This is a prolonged, moving, and movable ceremony,” observed West, himself a military veteran as well as a member of Rotary and the American Legion. “As I move around this place, going up and down the rows of graves, I observed that the others here today have some of the same reactions as I have had. It is really quite moving when you think of the people here who have sacrificed to protect our way of life in the United States. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their life to protect the freedoms we know.

“At least some of the volunteers here today did not serve in the military,” added West. “They went on to their professional or business careers while the men and women we honor today, whether they were asked to serve (through the military draft) or volunteered, they said, ‘yes.’ So this is a great way for us, at least once a year, to honor them for their service.”

Saturday morning’s volunteers were separated into teams of two or three, with each team assigned a section of the 4-acre graveyard. Armed with lists of known veterans buried in each section, the various teams quietly combed the grave markers looking for names on their respective lists, then firmly spearing the grassy soil with the tip of a small wooden flag pole bearing the Red, White & Blue banner. The Marines who planted the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in World War II, atop Mount Suribachi, would be proud of the effort — and that generations that followed them cared enough to remember the threats to American soil that they helped turn away.

Whether they were asked to serve or volunteered, they said, “Yes”

Scanning the teams’ handiwork afterward, American Legion Commander and member of the Board of Commissioners Albert Yount reflected, “This ceremony brings to light the number of people who gave their time — and some of them gave their life. That’s what is under each of these flags, and that service and sacrifice has perpetuated this country for many years. We saw today gravestones where a number of wars and armed conflicts were noted: Vietnam, World War I, World War II, Iraq, Korea, the Persian Gulf…For each one, in their particular time of life these men and women served and sacrificed.”

L-R: Jim Zellner, Alice Salthouse, and Charlie Sellers examine headstones to see anyone they might have missed.

Honoring the veterans stirred unique perspectives among different volunteers.

“This brings things into perspective about life,” explained former Rotary Club president and High Country Community Health CEO Alice Salthouse. “There are flags on the names of veterans, but in this time of COVID-19, walking around here and seeing familiar names you also realize that there are people who do honorable and great things who don’t have a flag on their grave. So, for me, as I walk by each marker and see a name that I may or may not be familiar with, I think about each of those people and wonder about their life, from birth until death.

Especially in this time of COVID-19, walking through this cemetery  you realize there are so many people who do honorable and great things who don’t have a flag on their grave.

“I wonder what their life was like,” Salthouse continued. “Did they have a good life? Did they live in poverty or abundance? Were they blessed in their life? Did they feel blessed? Were they happy or grumpy? We all have a choice in how we live.

“Of course, I don’t remember a lot of these people,” admitted Salthouse. “Maybe I wasn’t around during their time here or our paths just did not cross. But when you do see a familiar name, it stirs memories. I saw the headstone of Dr. Elliot Motley over there. He was on the board of the hospital and gave a lot of free dental care to people in need and who could not afford it. A wonderful man…”

Former Blowing Rock Chief of Police Owen Tolbert was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, serving in Vietnam.

Virginia Powell, a member of Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners and flanked by her children, acknowledged her role in passing down historical significance from generation to generation.

“As a mother, I think it is important for my kids to understand and appreciate the service and sacrifice of our military veterans,” Powell noted. “For them to help plant these flags at the grave sites makes it personal.”

We spent some extra time at the grave site of our late friend, Jerry Burns, “Mr. Blowing Rock,” who served in the U.S. Navy before his professional career as editor of the Blowing Rocket newspaper for 40+ years.

Appreciation was running high in the sunny, mid-morning hours on Saturday.

“It is so overwhelming,” said Mayor Charlie Sellers, “to think of the number of people who have served our country so that we are able to live in the way and with the means that we live now. To be able to be out here is an honor, but it is also impressive to see all branches of military service represented, from all of the different conflicts. In this time when we are dealing with the virus, the statement of service by these men and women recognized today with this simple gesture says that this country is one and will always be one.”

We owe a lot to these people being remembered today. In some cases they gave the ul

Jim Zellner of Blowing Rock Rotary acknowledged, “This is a ceremony. We owe a lot to these people who have gone before us. In some cases they gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in service to the country. In all cases, they obviously passed away. It is the least we can do to honor them.”

Military service was just part of our friend Ron Oberle’s full life, an MIT grad and former national bicycle road racing champion. He was a longtime member of Blowing Rock Rotary.

Blowing Rock’s effort to remember the military veterans is not lost on others from outside the region. In reflecting on how long he and others have been annually engaged in the ceremony, West recalled, “A few years ago we were out here and there was a family from South Carolina having a picnic beside a specific grave. They said they come up here every year in mid-May to remember their fallen family member and thanked us for this symbolic gesture of recognition and remembrance.”

Harwood summed up the experience for most when he said, “Maybe this is a really small town thing to do, but it is an honor to place these flags and remember these men and women.”

 

1 COMMENT

  1. David,
    Excellent article on placing flags in our local cemeteries this Memorial Day!!

    I remember some times it was only Ron doing Woodlawn and Barbara and I doing sixteen other family and church cemeteries, sometimes in heavy fog, heavy rain, or hot and humid days. I feel honored for the opportunity of participating in this tradition from 2004 to 2019.

    We are “locked down” here in Deerfield Retirement Community in Asheville and our community staff are trying very hard to protect all of us “high risk” residents. Despite their best efforts, we have already had three positive COVID 19 members and one COVID 19 death. The threat is real.

    Again, thank you for an excellent article. The photos of headstones of Blowing Rock residents we knew and loved really hit home. I remember Police Chief Owen Tolbert stopping traffic on Sunset at 3 pm for the Blowing Rock School students. He always had a smile and a good word of cheer for everyone. Jerry Burns was a true “hero” of mine as he was a Hospital Corpsman with the Marine Corps during his time of service. In Viet Nam, a corpsman saved my butt on 5 September 1966. Ron Oberle’s flag got to me since Ron and I worked together on many trips around the county placing flags as well as setting up and executing great Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day ceremonies for years! Hovey Scoggins’ headstone reminded me of his great wit and his wild war stories of his service with the Army Air Corps in India during WW II. Your article was a wonderful trip back in time with happy memories flooding in.

    Don’t stop reporting on the happenings in a small piece of paradise in Western North Carolina!!

    Bill

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