Tradition of respect

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Despite being hobbled by a broken left ankle and crutches, Sylvan May of Possum Junction spent Saturday morning finishing the task of planting 144 American flags in front of the tombstones of the veterans who rest in St. Meinrad Cemetery. May, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, has carried out the task in anticipation of Memorial Day for 30 years.


ST. MEINRAD — A Vietnam veteran walks up and down the graves at St. Meinrad Cemetery, stopping every so often to bend over, while on crutches, to stick an American flag in front of a tombstone.

It’s the day before Memorial Day services in the St. Meinrad area and Sylvan May, a 65-year-old Army veteran, is out planting flags for the 144 veterans resting in the Spencer County cemetery, just as he’s done every year for the past 30 years.

His broken ankle isn’t going to get in the way. He hasn’t missed a Memorial Day since returning home from Vietnam in 1972.

May carried a list of all the veterans buried in St. Meinrad Cemetery as he planted flags Saturday morning.

“I don’t intend to miss one this year because I’m on crutches,” May said. “As long as I can hobble, I’ll be out here.”

He stops in front of another grave, putting both crutches in his left hand and planting a flag in the ground with his right. He whispers the name of the veteran under his breathe.

May, a Possum Junction resident, long ago memorized the resting places of each veteran at St. Meinrad. May goes about his work in silence as bird songs fill the air on the overcast Saturday morning.

“It’s one of the most important days for the people who have been in the military (and) the comradeship that goes along with that,” he said. “That we’re still good enough and able to go out on Memorial Day, is a privilege. It’s our duty.”

He’s confident he knows where all of the veterans are buried, but he occasionally glances at a notebook listing their resting locations.

“I know them, but I don’t want to leave anyone out,” he said.

It wasn’t until 1985 that he started planting the flags at St. Meinrad. He began by shadowing Korean War veteran Melvin Schaefer.

“I said, ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll help you put the flags on the cemetery.’ He had been doing it so long, he knew it by heart,” May said. “The next year he passed away and I’ve been putting the flags on the cemetery ever since.”

As the membership chairman for the St. Meinrad American Legion Post 366 goes about just one of his Memorial Day duties, he stops in front of five identical headstones.

“These are the gentlemen that really gave it all,” he said gesturing towards a row of five WWII veteran headstones and then one more headstone a row forward. “We’re fortunate. That’s why we do what we can (for the dead).”

The hometown boys, he calls them. There are seven of them, but only six graves at St. Meinrad. All of them died within about a year and a half of each other in World War II. The seventh soldier is buried in a military cemetery in Missouri.

May planted flags in front of the tombstones of the veterans who rest in St. Meinrad Cemetery Saturday morning.

May places a flag for the seventh soldier among the six headstones at St. Meinrad.

“I wish more people would come out and participate (in Memorial Day services) because, the way I look at it, is that most people have someone that they’re related to that is a veteran,” he said. “It’s what those people gave that allow us to live (our lives).”

In addition to making sure flags are placed on the graves at St. Meinrad, May has been instrumental in organizing the Memorial Day services at multiple cemeteries since the late 1980s. Members of St. Meinrad American Legion Post 366 visited eight cemeteries Sunday, and May helped organize the membership to come out to present the colors, play taps, recite prayers and remembrances and conduct 21-gun salutes.

“(May’s) work is really important. He’s helped keep things together for years. He does a heck of a lot for the legion,” said Claude Boehm, a 86-year-old Korean War Veteran. “If he quit doing what he’s doing, I’d be lost.”
May is always there when the post or its members need anything.

“He’s a real American Legion member. He helps with anything going on with the legion,” said Leroy Greulich, a 84-year-old Korean War veteran.

May spent 13 months in Vietnam, serving in the First Airborne division. He worked to establish radio communications between military sites. He didn’t go because of the draft. He went because he wanted to, signing up during his senior year of high school.

“A lot of people were trying to get out of service,” he said. “I signed up because nobody else in my family had ever been into service. Hey, it’s my time to go. I ought to do something.”

He credits his time in the Army as one of the sources for his drive and sense of selfless service to fellow veterans.

“(When) you get into battle, you might not be able to protect yourself, but your fellow soldier beside you is looking out for you. I’m looking out for him, and he’s looking out for me,” May said. “That’s where, I think, I learned my respect for fellow mankind. That’s why I try to treat people fairly and honestly. It’s not only a military thing, it’s a Christian thing, too.”

To May, it doesn’t matter who a person was in life. If they were a veteran, they get his respect.

“Most people don’t get the comradeship that one veteran has for another,” May said. “The guy might not be worth a darn in life, but at least he’s still a veteran.”

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