Shaking off the chill of Friday’s snow dusting, a gathering of townsfolk paying their respects to deceased veterans met Saturday morning at city hall. In an outpouring of community support, they came to start a new Laurel tradition — the laying of evergreen wreaths on the graves of more than 200 veterans buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery.
A wave of black leather motorcycle jackets in company with military and service uniforms and bundled up civilians began filling the City Council chambers an hour before the Wreaths Across America ceremony, coordinated by North Laurel resident Lisa Wright, was set to begin.
In the lobby, Commander Israel Olu of the Air Force ROTC, who would lead the procession across Sandy Spring Road to the cemetery, said ROTC volunteers had already begun showing up.
“It’s an honorary moment,” he said.
Greeted by hot drinks and doughnuts, volunteers mingled casually before the ceremony, which began with Mayor Craig Moe thanking everyone for coming and presenting symbolic key-to-the-city pins to all.
Shirley Fisher, president of the Woman's Club of Laurel, helped out with refreshments. She said Wright, who is also a member of the Woman’s Club, recruited members after attending a ceremony in Columbia on National Wreaths Across America Day last year.
Wright said that was her first experience with the nonprofit Wreaths Across America, which coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies at more than 1,200 locations in all 50 states (and at sea and abroad) every December.
Wright said she could have participated at Arlington National Cemetery this year, but wanted to bring a more intimate ceremony to her hometown as an annual tradition.
“Every family has a veteran,” Wright said. “I thought this would be something really special to do in Laurel, so I just took it on.”
In the spring, Wright reached out to Moe and Ivy Hill Cemetery Treasurer Maurice Harding and began planning the event last August.
Harding provided Wright with invaluable assistance as the two walked the grounds and mapped out the graves, she said. On Saturday, veteran grave sites were already marked with American flags.
Ivy Hill is also home to monuments listing the names of fallen members of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, Laurel Police Department and Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad. American Legion Post 60 also has a monument there; representatives from those groups were in attendance Saturday.
“I am humbled and truly blessed by the outpouring of support for this project and our veterans,” Wright said.
Motorcycle clubs the Chosen Sons and the American Legion Post 60 Riders were also a strong presence.
Wright said more than $5,000 was raised to purchase wreaths through donations, with motorcycle club Riders for the Fallen as the largest contributor; 150 extra wreaths were donated to Arlington National Cemetery.
But delivery of 220 wreaths to Ivy Hill Cemetery was delayed on Saturday. Wreaths Across America officials apologized for their error and promised to deliver the wreaths as quickly as possible (most likely this week), but not in time for the ceremony.
Organizers didn’t let this glitch cast a shadow on the day’s sentiment. Ivy Hill Cemetery President Bill Watts drove to Lothian Saturday morning to pick up 80 available wreaths just in time for the ceremony.
As Wright would comment in her closing remarks, it wasn’t about “decorating graves,” but about remembering and honoring Laurel’s veterans.
Wright purchased eight wreaths for a symbolic wreath-laying at city hall honoring soldiers who served in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines, as well as those missing in action and prisoners of war and veterans lost to suicide.
At the city hall ceremony, the Rev. Mitchell Lee of Grace Community Church led the invocation, followed by the presentation of colors by the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Honor Guard. American Heritage Troop 1208 sang the national anthem, and Commander Shirley Luby of American Legion Post 60, and others, addressed the volunteers.
Laurel police closed Sandy Spring Road for the procession from city hall to Ivy Hill Cemetery, which was led by the Air Force ROTC.
Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin said he believes the ceremony at Laurel is “long overdue.”
Moe said he felt overwhelmed by the show of support from the community and looks forward to partnering with Wright on future ceremonies.
Laurel resident Donna Makowelski, whose father and two uncles were veterans, said she found the ceremony “very touching and moving.”
Judy Miller, who lives in Laurel and came with Makowelski, attended the Arlington National Cemetery ceremony last year. Miller, who has three uncles and a father who served, said “it was great for the city to turn out like this.”