Holiday Honors

Starting the first week of November, workers at the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Maine, assemble thousands of Christmas wreaths made from lush, green balsam fir trees. Each wreath measures 20 inches across. Then, nearly 100 volunteers arrive on a Sunday morning in December to decorate them with crimson bows and matching ornaments. That afternoon, they pack the wreaths into a couple of tractor-trailers and – escorted by as many as 100 other vehicles driven by volunteers – the convoy treks 770 miles south along U.S. Route 1, all the way to Arlington National Cemetery, where American Legion members and thousands of other volunteers carefully place the wreaths at grave sites of those who served their country. At about 350 other cemeteries around the country, similar ceremonies take place at the same time.

Coordinating it all, in his leather farm jacket and baseball cap, is Morrill Worcester, who started the effort in 1992 – back when he had no volunteers and still managed to get 5,000 wreaths to Arlington. This year, he expects to place more than 100,000 wreaths (at least 15,000 at Arlington) and the remainder at other cemeteries nationwide – all made possible by his nonprofit foundation, Wreaths Across America.

Ever since he first visited Arlington at age 12, Worcester has been spellbound by the cemetery’s quiet power. “I was so overtaken by the enormity of it all,” recalls Worcester, who turns 60 on Christmas Eve. “It seemed to go on forever.

Yet everything was nice and clean and quiet, and every gravestone seemed to be lined up so perfectly.”

After that trip, Worcester went on to become a successful entrepreneur. He sold sweet corn, carrots and other produce at roadside stands. He built a concrete-manufacturing enterprise. He bought a professional basketball team, the Maine Lumberjacks, from the old Continental Basketball Association. And he started his Worcester Wreath Co., a top supplier to L.L. Bean’s holiday product line for over a quarter-century. That for-profit company was what launched Wreaths Across America.Comments from visitors to the foundation’s Web site capture the immense geographic and emotional sweep of the project. From Evesham, England, a gentleman named Douglas Harrison inquires about getting a wreath for a friend from long ago whom he believes is now buried at Arlington. In Rittman, Ohio, students collect loose change to raise $3,036 for wreaths. And this from a woman only identified as Donna, who lives in Pennsylvania: “My sisters and I were on our annual visit to Beverly to remember my mom’s brother, William Hesselbacher Jr., who died in World War II at age of 22, and when we arrived, the Wreaths Across America Ceremony was about to begin. We were very fortunate to attend .... We have often wondered who the men were who lay next to our uncle, and if they are still remembered after all these years. Let’s not forget them.”

Thanks to Worcester and his volunteers, these veterans aren’t forgotten. The project founder recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine. Q: How did all of this begin?A: It started by accident. At the end of the Christmas buying season in 1992, I realized I’d have 5,000 wreaths left over once I filled my suppliers’ orders. I had a good year that year, but I was still way over in inventory. These were still very nice wreaths, very fresh and well assembled, and I didn’t want to waste them. I thought it would be worthwhile to place them at the graves in Arlington. I had to get clearance, so I contacted the office of Sen. Olympia Snowe, who was a congresswoman at the time. The next day, they told me I could take my wreaths to Arlington. I got a truck donated to me, and my son, a couple of my employees, and I drove to Washington. When we arrived, we had about a dozen volunteers show up, including several from The American Legion. I don’t know how, but they found out about us, and they just were waiting at the cemetery. With their help, it took us six hours to get all of the wreaths placed. Q: How did it grow from there?A: For the first 14 years, it didn’t. I went the longest time just doing this my way. It was my own personal thing to do, I figured. After a while, we got up to 100 volunteers to help us place the wreaths at Arlington. But in 2005, a photographer took a very nice picture of one of the wreaths, and he put it on his Web site, along with a poem. That summer, we were getting calls and e-mails from people all over the world, sending us contributions and asking us how they could help. At the time, we didn’t have the nonprofit, so we couldn’t accept any of their money. We literally had to send it back. But we soon established the foundation, and we expanded to cemeteries nationwide, because we realize that veterans are buried all over the country. By 2007, we expanded to about 35,000 wreaths overall. Last year, we did 105,724. My company doesn’t donate every one, either. We donated 28,000 last year. The rest are provided through contributions from individuals and businesses and community groups. Q: You make quite an annual journey to deliver the wreaths. Describe the experience.A: It really can be something. We’ll make 26 stops. There are so many towns that want to present something to us, or communities where people are just sitting by the road, waiting. We’re always running late, too, because we have quite a lot of vehicles with all the trucks and the motorcycles. In Rye, N.Y., they gave me the key to the city and staged their own wreath-laying ceremony. In Old Saybrook, Conn., they really rolled out the red carpet. They had a huge ceremony, fed us a chicken dinner and put us up in a local hotel for the night. The next day, they cooked us eggs and bacon. Sometimes, it’s something simple that touches you. We once saw a guy on the side of the road with a lantern in the dark of night. He started waving this huge American flag that he had. Totally thrilled to see us.Q: What memories are most vivid from actually placing the wreaths at Arlington?A: I’ll never forget one. It was two years ago and my wife, Karen, and I were placing wreaths at a section there. We went to the edge of a hill and saw a horse-drawn caisson with a casket. There was just one car behind it, so you know the person who died didn’t have many people to attend the burial ceremony. But as soon as people heard those horses – and there were thousands of people at Arlington that day because of our wreaths – everybody stopped what they were doing. They took their hats off and placed their hands over their hearts. My wife had tears in her eyes.Q: How has The American Legion been involved?A: The Legion has been there from the very beginning, of course. We can’t do it without the support of the Legion and all the other groups that help out. In March, the American Legion Auxiliary awarded me its Public Spirit Award. I was very humbled to receive it. When I said a few remarks, I recognized a woman from the Legion who was with us on that very first day that we brought the wreaths. I acknowledged her to the audience. I didn’t even recall her name, but I remembered what she did for us that day.Q: What kind of feedback do you get from families of the deceased?A: We get all kinds of wonderful e-mails and letters and cards. So many say that they went to the grave of their dad or granddad or brother and discovered the wreath. They tell us they had no idea it was there, and they’re so appreciative that someone remembered their loved one.Q: Do young people participate too?A: That’s one of the prime focuses of Wreaths Across America: to get young people involved. With all the volunteers we now have at Arlington, you’re going to get to place two wreaths at most. So we tell the kids and their families to take their time. Look at the gravestone for a while and try to get a sense of who this person was. We want the young people to really understand the sacrifices people made for this country.Q: What, ultimately, is your goal?A: This might sound crazy, but someday I want a wreath on every single veteran’s grave. You’re talking millions, of course. But that would be quite a message to send to the world. I hope it happens someday. Who knows?  Dennis McCafferty is a Washington-area writer. He is a senior writer for USA Weekend.