For the last several years, Air Force veteran Gene Theroux has collected extensive research on the local servicemen and women interred in cemeteries in the city of Westfield and other surrounding towns.
Along with his research, Theroux trains volunteers to help clean and restore veterans’ gravestones — and in doing so, works to preserve the memories of those who served our country in the Armed Forces. Ahead of this Memorial Day weekend, Producer Dave Fraser caught up with Theroux in Southwick to bring us this story.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: For the last several years, Air Force veteran Gene Theroux has collected extensive research on the local servicemen and women interred in cemeteries in the city of Westfield and other surrounding towns.
Along with his research, Theroux trains volunteers to help clean and restore veterans’ gravestones and in doing so, works to preserve the memories of those who served our country in the armed forces.
Producer Dave Fraser caught up with him in Southwick prior to this past Memorial Day to bring us this story.
Dave Fraser: Tucked in the back of the old cemetery in Southwick, Gene Theroux and some volunteers are working to reset a military veteran’s grave that has fallen over.
Years of neglect has caused many of the headstones in this cemetery and others around the area to crack, topple, or just become unstable. Theroux has taken on the responsibility of repairing them.
Gene Theroux, Air Force Veteran: I believe in the four pillars of service of the American Legion. And part of that strong is Americanism, community service.
And that’s what this is all about in theses cemeteries: Americanism and civil service.
Dave Fraser: Some of the markers are made of sandstone and limestone and are porous. So, it can take some time for caked-in biological matter to break down.
Others, made of marble and granite, are easier to clean because the dirt is mostly on the surface. But what Theroux uncovers is much more than names and dates etched in stone.
Gene Theroux, Air Force Veteran: Probably, people don’t realize their service, their sacrifice, what they gave, and what they contributed back to the community afterwards.
Dave Fraser: Theroux says that in the cemetery in Southwick, there are 38 veterans from the Revolutionary War, three from the War of 1812, and 22 from the Civil War, along with veterans from Korea, Vietnam, World War One, and World War Two.
Gene Theroux, Air Force Veteran: There’s several that were killed in action during the war there on the other side, including Robert Silvernail, who attended Westfield High School.
He lived right across the street from the town hall. He went down in an airplane in the Burma campaign, and his remains have never been found.
Dave Fraser: Another is Philip Atwater. He was 22 when he went missing in action in the South Pacific during World War Two.
His gravestone has been brought back to its original condition and decorated appropriately with American, POW-MIA, and Purple Heart flags.
For stones that need to be reset, a special tripod and chain is used to lift the stone, prepare a new base, and then lower it back in, setting it to the proper height.
Gene Theroux, Air Force Veteran: What we did was we raised it to bring it as close to 22 inches from the top of the headstone to the plane on the ground and to level it.
And so, when you look at the monument, you can see where how much was below the ground.
And then, ultimately, I will be visiting that headstone to plant more grass seed around it because it’s important to have good ground cover around the monuments because that helps keep them in place.
Dave Fraser: Heidi Johnstone is one of the volunteers working on this day, and she also serves on the Cemetery Commission in Southwick.
While doing some ancestry work, she discovered several members of her family were buried there.
Heidi Johnstone, Volunteer: I found a connection to this cemetery. My grandfather’s father and all of his relatives, ancestors before that, are buried here.
And this is my fifth great-grandfather right here.
Dave Fraser: Theroux recognizes the years of neglect many of these gravestones have suffered, but one-by-one with the help of others in the community, he hopes to bring them back to the condition they deserve.
Gene Theroux, Air Force Veteran: I just find it so remarkable about the service and the sacrifice and the call to duty. What those folks did 20 years from now or wherever we might be, and we can no longer contribute and participate.
We have to make sure that our country is left in good hands and that people know what liberty and freedom and what people sacrificed.