Grass, Stone, and Honor
Grass... stone... honor

© St. Petersburg Times, published 2003-11-07 15:00:00 Etc/GMT

   SWANN ESTATES - Daniel Hall Jr. doesn't cut the grass anymore. Doesn't spray bleach on the stones.  

   The retired Marine is 81 years old. He has had both knees and a hip replaced. And even he must admit that taking care of the American Legion Cemetery near Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway is a younger man's work.

   But, if duty calls, it's not hard to imagine Hall firing up his lawn mower one more time.

   To him and the other elderly veterans who oversee the cemetery, it's simple: The 730 men and women buried there gave so much.

   Most were willing to die for their country. Many did.    So, to offer them anything less than a dignified final resting spot "isn't showing proper respect," said Hall, who lives in Gandy/Sun Bay South.

   The American Legion Cemetery is a throwback. So are the people who take care of it.    On Memorial Day, ceremonies there honor the dead. Grown men cry.  On Saturday, the American Legion members will attend the annual Veterans Day Parade in Town 'N Country, joining thousands in remembering the soldiers in Iraq and around the world.  On Veterans Day, Tuesday, it will be quiet, except for the swoosh of passing cars.  The cemetery rows will remain straight, the stones white, the fence, trim and black.  Spotless. Just the way the old soldiers left it.

   The 2-acre cemetery is "remarkably well-maintained," said Buz Barbour, Commander of American Legion Post 5, which is based next to the cemetery. "It's a lot of work. And it's constant work."

   Post 5 bought the land in the 1920s, with auxiliary member Mrs. O.N. Bie leading the charge. According to legion lore, Mrs. Bie couldn't stomach the notion of a homeless World War I veteran being buried in a pauper's grave.  At the time, the cemetery was on the outskirts of town. Now, it's near one of Tampa's busiest intersections, adjoining the even smaller Hopewell Church Cemetery. Lindell Motors is on one side, a strip mall on the other. The bone-white tombstones march toward a line of oaks beneath a billboard that shows a busty woman in a halter top.

   Still, this is sacred ground. Protected ground.    "The stones in this cemetery look better than they do at Arlington," Hall said proudly during a recent tour.  Care of the Tampa cemetery falls to the American Legion Cemetery Corp., a group founded in the 1970s. The corporation board has six members - three from Post 5 and three from the auxiliary unit, which is made up of nonveterans. Hall is the group's chairman.

   Even among veterans, this is an elderly group.  The oldest board member is 101. The youngest, Herb Springston, is 76.  An incoming member is in his 60s.   "I recruited him specifically to get some youth in there,"  said Springston, who has served on the board for a decade.   The group's age is no coincidence, he said.  Younger members of the post are more inclined to use cemetery funds for other activities, such as touching up monuments, Springston said. "They don't realize it's dear to our hearts."   The corporation is in the process of creating a trust fund so its money will be used to maintain the cemetery forever, he said.   Until a few years ago, board members did most of the maintenance work themselves.   Daniel Hall and his late brother, Lin Hall, mowed and weeded
for more than 20 years.   Before the Halls began their work, legion members wouldn't say the cemetery was neglected, but the tombstones were "just as black as they can be," Hall said.   He attacked the mold-covered marble with soap and water. It worked, but it took forever, even for a never-say-die Marine.  Plan B, which involved bleach and a sprayer, was more successful.

   The Halls straightened tombstones, too. The sand beneath the marble often shifts, leaving tombstones leaning at odd angles. Hall and his brother used a makeshift contraption to lift the stones so they could fill the gaps with clay.

   Today, most of the work falls to lawn service contractors or people working off community service hours.   But with Hall, old habits die hard. About a year ago, he hauled his riding mower from home and cut the grass. The cemetery "just needed it," he said.   The cemetery corporation has other duties, including maintaining finances. Thanks to the sale of a sliver of legion land to widen Kennedy Boulevard about a decade ago, the cemetery is on solid financial footing, Hall said. He declined to say how much is in the fund.   The group also keeps track of historical records.   The dead are from nearly every state, at least half a dozen countries and every branch of the military. They served in every conflict from the Spanish-American War to Vietnam. Most were enlisted, but some were officers, including several colonels and a general.   Quite a few earned Purple Hearts, the medal given to those wounded by the enemy.  The last burial, for World War II nurse Cressie Warren, was in 1994. Since then, the cemetery has held one or two cremation services a year, mostly for wives or children of buried veterans.

   About 60 burial spaces remain. But requests for them have dwindled.    Today, many veterans opt for burial at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, which opened in the late 1980s, Hall said. It's cheaper, and the surroundings, thick with oaks and pines, are hard to beat.   "It's beautiful," said Hall, who will be buried there.

   But until then, his steely eyes will keep watch over the stones he cleaned here.

   A few years ago, he said, a developer offered to buy the cemetery and move the graves.   Fine, Hall said he told him.   But first, get in touch with every family who has a relative buried there. If they all say okay, we'll say okay, he said.    The developer moved on.   "We don't own this property. This property is these guys'
property," Hall said, gesturing to the graves around him. "These guys fought for it."

   - Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or 
                        emailto:[email protected]
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