TODD MORRISON, SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
ARLINGTON, Virginia – What is now a yearly tradition in which Mainers leave thousands of Christmas wreaths on the cold, hard headstones of Arlington National Cemetery might never have come to pass if it weren't for a young boy's paper route.
Back when Morrill Worcester was 12 and a paperboy for the Bangor Daily News, he learned the paper was awarding a trip to Washington, D.C., to carriers who signed up the most new subscribers. He was determined to win and, eventually, he did.
During that trip to the nation's capital, Worcester made an emotional connection with the military resting place. “It just stuck with me,” he said. “This is a national shrine.”
Thirty years later, when Worcester, owner of the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, had more than 4,500 extra Christmas wreaths, he decided to donate them to the cemetery that began 135 years ago as a burial ground for Civil War casualties but now includes casualties from every military conflict.
Since that first winter in 1992, the annual wreath-laying event has grown from about 10 people participating to 200, said Worcester, and it now takes a fraction of the time to lay the 4,500 wreaths that are donated by his company.
“It's just a thing that we do and we always will, as long as we can,” Worcester said Monday.
The annual event is organized by the Maine State Society in Washington, D.C., but friends of society members, local
veterans and Maine congressional delegation staffers also help lay the wreaths. When this year's event took place Monday morning, students from the Margaret Chase Smith School in Skowhegan and cadets from a Civil Air Patrol unit in Maine also were on hand.
The society adorns a different section of the cemetery each year and on Monday decorated an area that included people killed in recent action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“People often ask you, ‘Well, do you just put them on the Maine soldiers' [graves]?' Absolutely not. We don't care who they are or where they're from,” said Wayne Hanson, the society's president, who originally hails from Bangor, Maine.
The Maine State Society was established in the nation's capital in 1894 by a group of displaced Mainers looking for a “touch of home.” Its 1,000 members now live in 25 states and five foreign countries.
On Monday, the society members and helpers also laid wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at the grave of Sen. Edmund Muskie and at a memorial to those who went down with the USS Maine.
At the USS Maine memorial the society also presented Worcester with its annual “Big M” award for his contributions to Maine. Past award winners have included Senator George Mitchell and Reagan Cabinet Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The award was founded 40 years ago.
Standing by the old masthead, an impromptu ceremony was held for Worcester, who was unable to attend the society's awards banquet Saturday night because of illness, but who was at the cemetery helping to lay wreaths Monday. Impressed with the award, some Margaret Chase Smith pupils asked Worcester for his autograph.
Worcester's feeling of personal connection to the cemetery also was felt by a young mother whom he had never met. His wreaths provided another way for her to pay respect to someone she loved.
Barbara Sullivan, who grew up in Lewiston, lost her husband, Lieutenant Patrick Sullivan, to a rock climbing accident when they were living in Brest, France, where he was stationed as a naval officer. For a second year, Sullivan has joined the society in laying wreaths.
At the time of her husband's death, Sullivan was six months pregnant. On Monday, their 7-year-old daughter, Maggie, was helping her mother.
Her brown hair blowing in the cold wind, Barbara Sullivan remembered the day her husband was buried in Arlington and the peaceful tranquility the surroundings evoked.
“It was so beautiful. Such a painful day, and yet it was so beautiful,” said the 38-year-old Sullivan, who visits her hometown once a year but now lives in Virginia Beach.
“You look at it differently when there's someone you love in it,” she said about the cemetery. “You care for it more. It holds a deeper place in your heart.”
Maggie Sullivan, who promised to write a report for her teacher in return for taking the day off from school, said she looked forward to coming here. “I like to get the wreaths and put them on the graves,” she said. “When you look at it from far away, it looks like a lot of wreaths on people's doorsteps.”
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard