To Arlington Cemetery Worker, Vets’ Sacrifices Aren’t Mere Memories

By Stephen Barr, Washington Post, Monday , May 29, 2000

These are Tom Sherlock’s duties today: Arrive at Arlington National Cemetery before 5:30 a.m. and open the gates. Spend most of the morning at the Memorial Amphitheater, escorting officials, helping check the sound system and making sure all the folding chairs are in the right places for the president’s Memorial Day speech.

Sherlock is but one of hundreds of cemetery employees, Secret Service agents and military personnel working this holiday weekend. For these government employees, there will be no trip to the beach, no time for bargain shopping at the malls.

“It is a day when we’re supposed to stop and remember those who have served in the armed forces, especially those who have died for us . . . and the gratitude that we owe to those generations that actually saved the world. We need to stop and reflect and remember that,” Sherlock said.

“My motivation is to give the veterans their due. This is Arlington and we have to do it right.”

Sherlock, 46, came to work at Arlington Cemetery almost 25 years ago. He had graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in American history, gotten married and thought he might look for a job in the government.

A special civil service exam was being offered one Saturday, the same day that Maryland played the University of North Carolina in basketball. An avid Terps fan, Sherlock figured he would watch the game on television.

But his wife “gently hounded me to the point where I took the exam instead of watching the game. It really hurt . . . but I took the exam that landed me here.”

The cemetery hired him as an “information receptionist,” to answer questions from tourists. A military-history buff since childhood, Sherlock would use his lunch break to stroll through the cemetery and see which names on gravestones evoked history lessons from his school days.

Just months after being hired, with the nation’s bicentennial about to begin, he was named the cemetery’s official historian, the second person to hold the job. His first big event was the 1975 visit by the Queen of England. Fourteen heads of state also paid their respects at Arlington that year. And Sherlock, who has no staff, has been writing down what happens at the cemetery ever since.

There have been a number of vivid moments that will always stand out for him, such as the burials of the seven astronauts of the space shuttle Challenger. “When I’m gone 100 years from now, people will still be visiting Arlington cemetery and still be interested in its history, and they will know what happened that day. . .

“History isn’t just old. History is what’s happening today. That is the very unique slant that I have here at the cemetery,” Sherlock said.

About 4.5 million people visit the cemetery every year, many to see the Tomb of the Unknowns. About 5,000 funerals for veterans and family members take place annually, and 2,500 special events are held to honor individuals and groups.

Sherlock’s schedule for this Memorial Day weekend lists 28 events on Saturday, 26 yesterday and 15 today, not counting President Clinton’s address. They include the annual memorial service for the Flying Tigers of World War II, a gathering of the Japanese American Citizens League to place flowers on graves and a remembrance for the sailors who died when the USS F4 Skate submarine sank off Honolulu in 1915.

But Sherlock’s favorite Memorial Day moment comes on the Friday morning before the big weekend. That’s when the 3rd U.S. Infantry goes row by row to place an American flag at each of the cemetery’s 268,000 gravestones.

“When I make that turn and come into the cemetery, it is awe-inspiring,” Sherlock said. “I still say, ‘Wow.’ “

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