HARRINGTON, MAINE – The elderly man on the telephone, a World War II veteran, was calling all the way from Texas.
He'd just heard about the company Down East that donates wreaths by the thousands each Christmas to Arlington National Cemetery. But like so many people, he couldn't quite believe it.
“Is it really true?” he asked Sherry Scott, office manager for the Worcester Wreath Co.
“Yes, it's true,” Scott replied.
The old soldier went silent for a few moments.
“Then he just broke down,” Scott recalled. “He cried and he cried and he cried. And I'm crying on the other end. Finally, he pulled himself together and I think we must have talked for a half hour.”
“Basically,” Scott said, “he just thought it was the most unbelievable thing he'd ever heard of.”
Unbelievable indeed. While the country prepares to celebrate Veterans Day with parades and memorial services Saturday, Worcester Wreath Co. is hard at work on its own tribute to those who served in the armed forces.
Next month, for the 15th straight year, 5,000 Worcester wreaths will be loaded aboard a tractor-trailer and hauled 750 miles to Arlington National Cemetery. There, starting at noon on December 14, 2006, a small army of volunteers will line up, take the wreaths one by one and gently lay them against the small white crosses.
And this year, there's more. On the same day at the same time, a half-dozen Worcester wreaths — one bearing the flag of each military branch and one with the POW/MIA flag — will be laid in each of 230 veterans cemeteries and monuments spread out over all 50 states.
It's called Wreaths Across America. And if you're wondering why a seasonal company halfway to nowhere would do such a thing, look no further than President Morrill Worcester's opening words in a video on the project's Web site (www.wreathsacrossamerica.org.)
“When people hear about what we do at Arlington, I am often asked if I am a veteran,” Worcester says. “I am not. But I have made it my business to never forget.”
Life has been good to Morrill Worcester since he founded his company in 1971. A sophomore at the University of Maine at the time, he saw money to be made ferrying homemade wreaths from Washington County to a wholesaler in Boston.
Thirty-five years later, his annual sales have blossomed from 500 wreaths to 500,000. He has 17,000 acres of evergreen plantation, wreath factories in Harrington, Columbia Falls, Topsfield and Woodland, and a shipping facility in Columbia. His biggest customer, by far, is L.L. Bean.
Growth like that, of course, can lead to an occasional glitch. Or in this case, a chance to think outside the business plan.
It was mid-December of 1992. Workers at the newly opened warehouse in Topsfield called Worcester and told him the place was knee-deep in wreaths ready for market.
“The problem was, it was too late in the season,” Worcester said. “There was no market left at that point.”
The obvious solution was to toss the wreaths and eat the loss. But Worcester had a better idea.
Back when he was 14, his success as a carrier for the Bangor Daily News had earned him a five-day trip to Washington, D.C. The one stop he never forgot was Arlington National Cemetery, with its endless rows of perfectly aligned crosses, its 24-hour color guard and its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“It was just an unreal thing to see,” Worcester said. “And it stuck with me all those years.”
Now here he sat three decades later with all these extra wreaths and into his memory popped the sight of all those graves.
Worcester called then-House Rep. Olympia Snowe's office and asked if he could truck his excess inventory down to Arlington and spruce up the place for the holidays. The next day, Snowe's staff called back and said bring it on.
And with that, one of Maine's finest traditions was born.
Each year since, Worcester Wreath Co. workers and other volunteers from all over Washington County have gathered on a Sunday afternoon to attach red bows to the wreaths and load them onto the trailer.
Then Jimmy Prout, owner of Bluebird Ranch Trucking Co. in nearby Jonesboro, hauls the load — at no charge — to Arlington.
There, a volunteer delegation from Maine joins forces with members of the Washington D.C.-based State of Maine Society to lay the wreaths out on acre after acre of graves.
“It's really taken on a life of its own,” Worcester said. “You see, it's not just us.”
Especially this year. Now that the wreath project is expanding nationwide, so is the generosity.
The Civil Air Patrol, thanks to the efforts of Worcester Wreath Co. manager (and CAP Major) Wayne Merritt, has offered to coordinate the wreath-laying ceremonies in all 50 states.
Annin & Co., a New Jersey-based flag maker, has donated some 3,000 small flags — stars and stripes along with banners for each military branch and the POW/MIAs — for the Wreaths Around America memorials.
UPS has agreed to ship the 250 boxes of wreaths to locations all over the country at no charge.
And the Patriot Guard Riders, a national veterans motorcycle group, will escort this year's tractor-trailer shipment from Harrington all the way to Arlington National Cemetery. By the time the truck arrives, they've promised, it will be led by as many as 300 flag-waving bikers.
“We're going to take Route 1 the whole way,” said Worcester. “The more people see it, the better.”
No surprise that last week, the national TV networks started calling. Worcester told them they're more than welcome to come on up and document the whole thing.
All that exposure, of course, can only be good for business — although for Worcester, that's hardly the point.
So what is the point? Why would a guy who's not a veteran take on a project this huge during what is already his busiest time of year?
Why not simply cut a check like other businesses and get back to work?
“Because,” Worcester said, “I want people to remember that kid who went over a hedgerow in France right into machine gun fire.”
As he spoke, the sounds of a company in full production echoed outside his plywood-walled conference room. Next door, Wayne Merritt sat at his computer, clicking out responses to the 150 e-mails that pour in daily from veterans, their families and others who just want to say thank you. The scent of freshly cut evergreens filled the air.
“The average guy who got killed in World War II was 21 years old. He never got the opportunity to do what we do,” Worcester said. ” But he was very instrumental in making it all happen.”
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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