CLYDE - Wayne Van Doren of Clyde has been busy this past week. Monday he started placing about 1,240 American flags on the graves of veterans buried in six Sandusky County cemeteries: Colwell, McPherson, Ellsworth, Parkhurst, Tew and Fuller, all in the Clyde area.
Last year, Van Doren was the subject of a segment on the CBS Sunday Morning television program. The Clyde resident said he has involved many family members and friends in the annual effort. He has two sons and four grandchildren in the area. The youngest son and two grandsons live in Pennsylvania. Although they were not be able to help this year, a Tiffinite has offered to assist Van Doren.
"John Spahr at The Ritz Theatre is a veteran ... and I work at The Ritz Theatre as a volunteer. He saw the segment last year, so we started talking about it and he said he was very interested," Van Doren said. "He said, 'When you put flags out, call me."
Spahr served in the U.S. Navy from 1989 to 1995. He said his first assignment was in Scotland on the USS Simon Lake. When the First Gulf conflict broke out in 1990, Spahr said he served on the USS Ponce in the Mediterranean Sea.
As the production manager at The Ritz Theatre in Tiffin, Spahr said he got to know Van Doren when he started volunteering backstage in 2003.
"I didn't know he did any of this. He came in and was telling me about it while we were working at the theater," Spahr said.
After viewing the Sunday Morning clip, Spahr offered to help when Memorial Day 2011 drew near. Van Doren started him off at Colwell, just south of Clyde, not far from Green Hills Golf Course. Established in 1830, the cemetery is the resting place for 22 veterans from the War of 1812, the Civil War and others in the 1900s.
"I want to get further into the research, because I do my own genealogy, and I really like looking for records, matching things up and eliminating false leads," Spahr said.
For Van Doren, distributing flags for Memorial Day is a family tradition. Although not a veteran himself, he did serve six years in the National Guard. Van Doren said he was about seven years old when he first participated, and he is now 70.
"My uncle started it when he came back from World War II, and Dad started helping him. I went along as a kid. I wasn't any help at all. I usually played cavalry and ran through the cemetery," Van Doren said.
During the years he lived out of town, his parents continued the effort. After his dad passed away, Wayne's mother and sister did most of the work and took friends along to help. Van Doren came back to the area and resumed the task. Since his mother's death in 1991, he and his sons and cousins have borne the responsibility.
Van Doren said he started a related project when his son John was discharged form the Navy and joined the American Legion in Clyde. Members there knew that McPherson Cemetery had many military markers missing. The father and son first went through in 1999.
"After I got through it, there were 189 veterans that were still on the VA (Veterans Administration) list but they did not have a flag holder. It took about two years to find everybody again ... going through cemetery records and VA records to find where they were buried," Van Doren said.
He also has devised his own system for getting the flags out in a timely manner. Van Doren made maps of the six cemeteries in his care and labeled each section and row. Then he listed the location for each grave next to the veterans' names on the list from the county veterans office. New names are added as World War II and Korean veterans pass away.
The lists are alphabetized, but the graves are not, so locating every person can be challenging. Also, the inscriptions can be difficult to read on the older monuments. Van Doren carries a marker to outline the names on some of the badly weathered headstones.
On Wednesday, John Van Doren and John Spahr both accompanied Wayne. Spahr was assigned to check off the names as the Van Dorens called them out. The largest cemetery is McPherson with 978 veterans. Most are in a special section there, usually done by Van Doren's grandchildren. Wayne said he tries to get McPherson done before Saturday, when many families start coming in. Van Doren said Sandusky County veterans services spends about $15,000 on flags each year.
"Sandusky County leaves them up until after Labor Day. Usually the Boy Scouts take them down and have a flag burning ceremony. There's not much left of the flags by Labor Day," Van Doren explained.
Van Doren also has begun a survey of all the cemeteries in Sandusky County. Getting McPherson in order made Van Doren wonder about the condition of the other cemeteries in Sandusky County. In 2001, he got started with smaller cemeteries near his home. The veterans services office provided records of veterans buried in each cemetery.
"I'd check everybody off if I found them. If I didn't find them, then I searched around until I did find them and made sure they had a flag holder," Van Doren said.
At the time, he was still working, so he put the project on the back burner until 2010, when he retired from the painting business. Last year he visited 21 cemeteries in four townships on the eastern side of the county and found every veteran in every one, even those that did not have markers. Ballville and Rice Townships in Fremont are next on his list.
"A lot of the markers get mowed over accidentally, bent over, broken off or moved. I'm straightening everybody out so that everybody has a marker, like they're supposed to have," Van Doren said.