Loyalhanna company forges bond with Arlington cemetery

The remains of Audie Murphy, the actor and Medal of Honor recipient, lie beside Memorial Drive. Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion, is buried near Roosevelt Drive. The final resting place of astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom is between Grant and McKinley drives.
Visitors to Arlington National Cemetery make their way on winding roads to the graves of America's heroes — those who served in the nation's military since 1861.

Here they lie in honored rest, including with hundreds of veterans who were prominent in civilian life, such as Chief Justice Earl Warren, television newsman Frank Reynolds and William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate whose “Cross of Gold” speech stirred a political revolt 111 years ago.

Arlington National Cemetery could very well be America's most hallowed ground.

Before summer, relatives of service men and women, official delegations and everyday tourists to Arlington will be looking up to street signs and poles manufactured by a local firm, Special Lite Products Company, of Loyalhanna, Pennsylvania.

The first of the poles and signs were shipped to Arlington on March 31, 2007.

“It's a great honor for us,” said Gary Lamolinara, whose father founded Special Lite in 1967. “It's a tremendous thing for our children. What a great legacy for all of us.”

Lamolinara is hopeful Special Lite and Arlington will enjoy a long, fruitful relationship.

Cemetery officials, he said, made it clear to him that, pending funding from Congress, they hope to replace every street sign and pole, many dating to the late 19th century. The small initial batch manufactured by Special Lite is for a 200-acre cemetery extension, scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend.

Kara McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Arlington, confirmed the cemetery is looking ahead to acquiring all new signage.

Tucked into a narrow slip of land in the middle of tiny Loyalhanna, the Special Lite Products Company was nursed by patriarch Ed Lamolinara from a family business that started in a garage to a worldwide supplier of upscale residential lighting and lawn accessories.

The Lamolinaras and the company's marketing director, Scott Siegel, readily concede the firm's manufacturing plant is a far cry from Arlington National Cemetery, with its row after row of solemn white headstones; its gleaming granite memorial to the Unknown Dead of World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam; and its tribute, marked by an eternal flame, to the 35th president, John F. Kennedy.

The contrast makes the company's association with the cemetery all the sweeter, Lamolinara said.

Cemetery officials discovered Special Lite's Web site in January 2005, in their search for a pole and sign manufacturer, and the first contact between the two was a phone call that caught Siegel off-guard.

Company officials eventually visited Arlington National Cemetery, received a insider's tour of the cemetery's 612 acres and came away with an original, cast-iron pole cut into two pieces and loaded in the back of Lamolinara's pickup truck.

“To tell you the truth, I think we made a good impression right away,” Lamolinara said. “I think the proof is that they gave us the pole.”

After reviewing a series of designs for the poles and street signs, cemetery officials asked Siegel and Lamolinara if Special Lite could duplicate the design of the original installations. Siegel and Lamolinara answered yes.

“They wanted a couple of improvements,” Lamolinara said.

The original cast-iron poles weighed as much as 1,000 pounds. Over the decades, this weight caused the poles to sink deeper into the ground. Because of their bulk, the poles had a tendency to drift or roll sideways in the soft earth after rain or snow.

In addition, the cast iron caused a great deal of chipping and peeling of the paint. Arlington workmen frequently were dispatched to give the poles yet another coat of paint.

Special Lite solved the problems — first by converting the sign poles to modern cast aluminum, then by utilizing a powder-coating process which “shocks” or electrifies paint into place. Company officials estimate a second coat of paint won't be required for decades.

The Lamolinaras' greatest challenge was to find a way to prevent the poles from slipping.

Gary Lamolinara said his father came up with the answer. The base of the old one-piece pole was a block sunk about 2 feet into the ground. Ed Lamolinara's idea was to make the base decorative while sinking a detached rod as thick as the pole itself into the ground.

Encased in concrete to a depth of 41 inches, this “direct burial section” would then be fitted with the upper portion of the pole.

The Loyalhanna firm's graphic design team figured out the dimension to make exact replicas for Arlington.

“We're all history buffs here,” Siegel said. “So this has been a wonderful experience.”

The street signs Special Lite has manufactured for Arlington are from the names of historic military figures: McClellan, York, Halsey and Patton, after the Civil War general, the World War I hero, and a World War II admiral and general.

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