Rain poured throughout most of the Saturday morning but eased up as hundreds of veterans, active-duty military personnel, local youth and members of the community gathered at Mount Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy, Mass. They were there to honor the veterans buried at the 144-year-old cemetery as part of Wreaths Across America.
But for some locals like Betty Ann Smith, the day had a more personal meeting. She was there to lay a wreath on the grave of her father John, a U.S. Marine Corps Korean War veteran who passed away in 2009. Come rain, snow or any other kind of weather, she was going to be there to honor her dad.
“That’s all I wanted to do today,” Betty Ann said. “To be the one to do that.”
The cemetery at Mount Wollaston was one of more than 2,000 similar events that took place across the nation on Dec. 14. In existence for three decades, Wreaths Across America helps communities “remember our fallen U.S. veterans, honor those who serve, and teach children the value of freedom" through the placing of wreaths on veterans’ graves.
And like many of the events throughout the nation, the one in Quincy had a strong American Legion presence. In addition to color guards from Robert I. Nickerson Post 382 and Cyril P. Morrisette Post 294 taking part in the ceremony prior to the placing of the wreaths, Legion Family members from both posts were responsible for fundraising for many of the wreaths.
Post 382 Adjutant Paul Prefontaine estimates his post alone raised enough to fund at least 1,000 of the wreaths. Prefontaine began going to Arlington National Cemetery 10 years ago for Wreaths Across America. Later, after joining Post 382, he and other Legionnaires would participate in the event at Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne. But Prefontaine and other Legionnaires connected with local Wreath Across America Chairman Christine Cugini in 2018 and were able to coordinate more than 3,300 wreaths being placed at Wollaston last December.
The mission this year was much larger: funding enough wreaths to cover the veterans’ graves at Wollaston, as well as the more than 2,000 at Pine Hill Cemetery and another 2,000 across five other local cemeteries. More than 7,400 wreaths were placed throughout Quincy by volunteers this time.
Neither Prefontaine nor Cugini were surprised that the Quincy community supported the project so strongly. “I’ve never seen a city, a community, that supports its veterans as well as the city of Quincy does,” Prefontaine said.
Cugini had gone to Arlington National Cemetery for the 2017 Wreaths Across America event and immediately wanted to bring a similar effort to Quincy. “I knew that this was the right community to bring it back to,” she said. “Quincy has always honored their veterans. They do so much for the veterans. I knew immediately when I took part in Arlington that Quincy would accept this and embrace it.”
The large turnout for the event included youth from elementary school all the way up to participants in the North Quincy Junior ROTC program. Seeing the younger faces in the crowd brought a smile to the face of Post 294 member Bob Lafleur, who played taps on his bugle during the ceremony that preceded the placing of the wreaths throughout the cemetery.
“It’s great to have the kids come out to help,” Lafleur said. “It’s amazing. I can’t believe how many people are here. I thought with the weather there’d be maybe half of this here. It’s simply amazing.”
At a ceremony prior to the wreath laying, Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch said while Mount Wollaston is one of the area’s most historic cemeteries, dating back to 1855, “it’s hallowed ground. It’s sacred ground because of the veterans who are buried here. The service they provided, with never a hesitation. This is a special place.”
Cugini reminded the crowd who it was there to honor. “The freedoms we enjoy today have not come without a price. Lying here before us and in cemeteries throughout this nation are men and women who gave their lives so that we can live in freedom and without fear.”
Keynote speaker and retired U.S. Army Col. Robert Notch, now the program development officer for the nonprofit Brighton Marine, said while it’s critical to assist the current generation of veterans transitioning from the military into the civilian world, “it’s just as important to honor those who have passed. Today we show that a grateful city remembers the service of those that serve no more.”
And George Nicholson, director of Quincy’s Department of Veterans Services and a past commander and 47-year member of Cyril P. Morrisette Post 294 in Quincy, quoted former President Ronald Reagan in saying “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on to them to do the same. Or one day, we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in the United States, where men were free.
“Today we show a united front of gratitude and respect across the United States of America, as we remember the fallen. We honor those who served, and their families. And teach, hopefully, the next generation the value of freedom.”
Nicholson said being involved in Wreaths Across America falls in line with the mission of The American Legion. “That’s who we are. We are veterans. We served. We fought for freedom,” he said. “We want the legacy to continue, and you can’t sit back and expect to continue by itself. We have to be out there. We have to lead by example.”
As the event wrapped up and Prefontaine looked around the cemetery, thousands of wreaths adorning many of the gravesites, he felt “a sense of pride: in the community, something I’ve giving back myself. It’s an honor to do it. It really is. It’s an honor to look around and see that I helped with this and that everybody came out to do this.”
For Betty Ann, who also has three uncles and a grandfather – all veterans – buried at Wollaston, seeing strangers come out to honor her family was an emotional experience. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “I just think it’s beautiful that people come out to do this.”