Lou Watkins gives a lot of time back to her community through volunteer service. Since she chairs the Board for the Fairlawn Cemetery in Stillwater, Oklahoma, you'd think she would know everything there is to know about those grounds; but she admits she learned much more last year through her involvement with Wreaths Across America - and so did students at Oklahoma State University, scouting groups, and many other citizens.
It was at Fairlawn’s 2017 Memorial Day service when Karly Walker approached Lou to suggest Fairlawn host Wreaths Across America in December. Lou invited her to a Fairlawn Board meeting, and in August it was agreed, less than four months out from wreath day, Fairlawn would host the event.
"Some people questioned whether or not we could do it," Lou explains. "I had no doubt, and the plan took off like a little rocket! It felt like it was a project waiting to be undertaken with just a little coordination. Every person we asked to do something did so, and I don't know if I've ever been part of an event that came together so well. No one was paid to do anything. Everything used for the entire event was donated."
Lou says about 12-thousand people buried in Fairlawn, and cemetery staff thought roughly 800 veterans were buried there (including about 200 from the Civil War era). To come up with an accurate wreath count for sponsorships, great effort was taken to assure no one was forgotten.
"We started walking our cemetery with various groups from the community in an effort coordinated by Debi Hodson," Lou explains. "Boy Scouts, the Stillwater FFA, fraternities and sororities from Oklahoma State University, and others walked Fairlawn four times searching for veterans’ graves that we had not identified as such, making a detailed file card for each. Then we got the word out in the community by any means possible that we wanted people to identify family members buried at Fairlawn who may have served at any point in time but whose grave monument did not indicate their service. It was extremely important to all of us that no one be left out."
That's when the count of veterans laid to rest in Fairlawn grew from 800 to over 1,300. As the first location leader for any Wreaths Across America event in Payne County, Lou knew she had her work cut out.
A few months earlier, Sally Smith had laid her retired career Army husband to rest at Fairlawn. Sally is uniquely talented in details and accounting – and deeply patriotic. She readily agreed to be the Finance/Fundraising Chair for the wreaths effort – and an effective leadership team began developing. Fundraising for wreath sponsorships continued into the fall by dedicated volunteers led by Sally, reaching their goal two weeks early.
Meanwhile, Lou started focusing on the “Remembrance Service” program and reached out to three retired U.S. Army Generals living in the community, asking them to serve as 3 of the 5 Honorary Chairs for the event. U.S. Army Maj. General (ret.) Dr. Doug Dollar, U.S. Army Maj. General (ret.) Dr. Ron Scholar, and U.S. Army Brigadier General (ret.) Lawrence Roy all were pleased to participate. Lou also asked Gold Star parents Brett and Nita Morris to be Honorary Chairs, and they were pleased to serve. Their son Jordan was killed August 11, 2011, by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and is buried at Fairlawn.
The leadership team grew. Gary LaFollette and Tom Williams coordinated logistics and safety. Lou asked Bill Stone to head a Contingency Planning Committee in the event the weather forced a postponement. Lou chuckled, “Bill told me his plan was to pray fervently for good weather!" December 16 was a glorious day!
Many retired military members wore their uniforms or other insignias of their service. After a bagpipe prelude by Piper Curtis Burns, members of the Cushing American Legion Post 108 began the service with a three-volley salute. One of the members is a WWII veteran, and the youngest of the ten participants is 60 years old. The colors were presented with absolute precision by the Oklahoma State University Air Force ROTC.
The six service wreaths were presented by uniformed members of that branch; and members of the audience who had ever served arose and saluted as the wreath was presented for their branch. The POW wreath was presented by AF Lt Col (ret.) William Schwertfeger, a 13-month “guest” of the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. There were few dry eyes as even little children rose to stand in absolute silence and reverence.
"It truly was a remarkable ceremony," Lou shares. "We kept the hoorah to a minimum and focused on the deep meaning of the ceremony. There was no applause. People were reverent beyond what we see even in church services these days. You could have heard a pin drop during the Ceremony of the Empty Chair, which the Vietnam Veterans particularly appreciated. Ed Davis and Dana Ayers led us in singing "God of our Fathers” (with trumpets), the National Anthem, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” and closed with “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
"After USAF Lt Col (ret.) Sabrina Jones played “Taps,” our 400 guests dispersed in silence - and the monument of every veteran soon was adorned with a beautiful Balsam wreath as their name was spoken aloud and they were humbly thanked for their service. Throughout Fairlawn, you could see families in little clusters having their own family ceremonies. It was an amazing day."
(Cover and slide show photos provided by David Bitton/Stillwater News Press)
After all the wreaths were laid, Toni Stone, Beth Fenimore Atess, and Hospitality Committee volunteers served hot chocolate and coffee. Tables laden with homemade Christmas goodies provided warm ambiance, and the fellowship that occurred was clearly enjoyed and appreciated by those present of all ages and from all walks of life. Attendees seemed in no hurry to leave.
When asked why she thought Fairlawn's first Wreaths Across America event was so successful, Lou explained it this way: "Early in our planning, one of our volunteers said at a meeting: 'it just feels so good to be a part of something so very, very positive!'"
Lou describes their Wreaths Across America ceremony in greater detail and provides some helpful insights for other volunteers on Wreaths Across America Radio.