SAUGUS, Mass. (AP) — More than 400 soldiers from five wars have been laid to rest at Riverside Cemetery, their graves maintained by a resident of Waban Street.
Gordon Shepard has spent the past eight years working to revitalize Riverside’s three military lots for no other reason than to honor the fallen.
However, his efforts did not go unnoticed as Shepard was named the 2014 Saugus Man of the Year at this year’s Founders’ Day.
In addition to being chosen as Saugus Person of the Year, Shepard was also the Saugus Youth Hockey Man of the Year in 2000 and, at the age of 2, he was named the King of Saugus by American Legion Post 210.
“I accept this award on behalf of all the men and women who have put on a military uniform to protect our country,” he said at the Sept. 6 Founders’ Day. “I don’t expect anything for what I do down there.”
A veteran himself, Shepard served as an Army crew chief in the 244th Aviation Brigade during the Vietnam War. He was engaged in the Tet Offensive in January 1968 in which 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers attacked 100 cities in South Vietnam.
Therefore, Shepard has reason to be as precise as possible in preserving the final resting places for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
A few of these brave souls include Army Warrant Officer Walter Olinsky of Revere who was shot down twice in Vietnam; Army Staff Sgt. Arthur DeFranzo of Saugus, killed in France and a recipient of the Medal of Honor; as well as Saugus brothers Army Sgt. John Kasabuski and Pfc. Walter Kasabuski, killed within 12 days of each other in northern Italy during World War II.
“Everything is in line, side to side, front to back,” Shepard said of the graves. “It’s got to be proper, it’s got be 100 percent outstanding as far as I’m concerned.”
He has also consulted the maintenance staff at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery to learn how the graves of the country’s greatest men and women are maintained.
Shepard explained that one way they keep the headstones straight is by using a method called bump and run. When the soil is wet, a bar can be inserted between the ground and the headstone to move it back to its correct position.
He added that it was a slow process as the white granite stones could be easily damaged if too much force was applied.
“It took me three years,” he said.
As for the flat grave markers, Shepard said they were sunk two to six inches in the ground when he first started tending the graves. He put crushed stone underneath to keep them level.
“Now it won’t settle as quickly,” he said.
Last fall, Shepard had granite curbing and an easy-access path installed at the largest of the three lots on the eastern side of the cemetery.
He added that all the granite was donated by Williams Stone in East Otis.
“This thing hasn’t cost the town a dime,” he said.
The Civil War lot, although smaller and removed from the other two, is elevated overlooking all of Riverside. The lot has three stairs flanked by two granite-shaped mortar guns. On the left side, a 33-star American flag flutters in the breeze symbolizing the 33 states that had joined the Union at the outbreak of the war in 1861.
Shepard’s current project is raising money to purchase three flagpoles. The first one will be 40 feet tall and will fly the American and POW flags, while the other two will stand at 30 feet flying POW flags and the flags of the armed forces.
Shepard plans to have the new flagpoles installed by Memorial Day 2015.
“It’s going to look awesome,” he said. “It’s something that Arlington National Cemetery would want.”
Anyone wishing to make a donation can send a check to Flagpoles c/o Gordon Shepard, 26 Waban St., Saugus 01906.