BARRE — A fistful of crisp new American flags in one hand and a clipboard in the other, retired Judge Stephen B. Martin went for a stroll in Hope Cemetery over the weekend. He left empty-handed.
Martin wasn’t alone on what was a sunny Saturday and it was far from the first mid-May day he spent searching for veterans’ graves in Barre’s premiere cemetery.
Martin, 87, has worked the Granite City equivalent of the “graveyard shift” before — always leaving fresh flags fluttering in his wake as part of an all-volunteer effort that involves decorating more than 2,700 graves in cemeteries in Barre and Barre Town in the run-up to Memorial Day.
Asked how long he’d been participating in the annual tradition, Martin paused for the briefest of moments.
“Maybe 20 years?” he replied, supplying an answer that sounded more like a question, but was close enough for volunteer work.
This is the 19th year for Flags for Veterans, a local group that revived a long-standing tradition started in 1895 by O.J. Dodge — an area jeweler who in 1935 turned it over to veterans organizations. That worked for nearly 65 years, but a shrinking cadre of volunteers led by Errol Briggs prompted those organizations to rethink an annual exercise that had become overwhelming.
The solution actually executed, but never widely embraced, involved replacing lots of little flags with one big one and a memorial in each major cemetery in Barre and Barre Town. Folks liked the idea of the monuments, but weren’t wild about losing what was viewed as a far more personal salute to those who served in the U.S. military.
Enter Flags for Veterans, which brought the tradition back in 2003 thanks to a core group of organizers — Briggs, Doug Nadeau, Mike Jarvis and Whitney Maxfield among them — and lots of helping hands, like those that belong to Martin.
Due to health issues, Nadeau is no longer able to help out, but Jarvis, Maxfield and Briggs were all active participants.
Maxfield, as is his custom, got things started last Thursday when he decorated the graves of the half-dozen veterans buried at tiny West Hill Cemetery in Barre Town.
On Friday, Maxfield and Louis Carcoba took care of St. Monica Cemetery in Barre, and Maxfield was among the volunteers who took their marching orders from Jarvis at Hope on Saturday.
“We’ve got it pretty much down to a science now,” said Maxfield, who on Sunday joined Jarvis and Briggs at Elmwood Cemetery, as part of a small contingent that placed flags at the graves of veterans — including some who fought in the Revolutionary War.
At some point over the weekend, Russ and Sue Slora decorated veterans graves at Maplewood Cemetery in Barre Town, according to Maxfield, who took Monday off.
The retired J-ROTC instructor at Spaulding High School was joined by the current crop of those students at Wilson Cemetery in Barre Town where the last of the flags were placed in metal standards purchased by the committee he now chairs.
Martin, a retired judge who graduated from Spaulding High School in 1950, was stationed in Germany during his brief stint in the U.S. Army.
Martin took a break from his Saturday assignment to recount his “claim to fame” with respect to his peace time military service.
“I went over on the USS Taylor. It took nine days. I drew KP duty,” Martin said, noting the return trip had a familiar feel.
“Sixteen months later same ship, same duty,” he said with a smile. “That sums up my military career.”
He may not have stormed the beaches of Normandy, but Martin’s military service will one day be flag-worthy once a year in Barre thanks to people like him.