Honoring heroes

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Dorothy Paytas, Kim Leroy and Sue Huerbin of Middlesex labored in the brisk cold under sunny skies to place wooden crosses at the graves of veterans buried at West Sunbury Cemetery in Clay.

For the past 10 years, the trio has decorated graves for Veterans Day and Memorial Day, and spruced them up at other times during the year. This Veterans Day, something special marks the graves — handmade crosses.

“It's a project we enjoy doing,” Leroy of Butler, said about decorating the graves. “I think the veterans have done so much for us, keeping us safe. A little flower or cross — they deserve something like that.”

They knew some of the veterans they honored.

Leroy and Huerbin of Middlesex, both 53, work at Colonial Gardens Guest House, a home for disabled veterans in Penn. Paytas, 80, of Renfrew retired last year after working at Colonial Gardens about 50 years.

The women started tending the graves of eight former service members who were residents of Colonial Gardens: Peter DiProspero, John Mason, Dr. Robert McFarland, Steve Pennington, Robert Reemsnyder, Gary Skiba, Edward Weber and Steve Voss.

Noticing that seven other graves had no headstones, just flat markers from the Veterans Administration denoting their military service, the women “adopted” the graves of Lamont Crope, Malverne Wolfe, Anthony Karailunas, James Morgan, Gerald Peotter, Howard McLaren and Michael Ulrich.

“We love our guys; this is our thank you for them,” Huerbin said.

The men served in World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War. McLaren served in both World War II and Korea.

Paytas, a member of the Meridian Veterans Club Ladies Auxiliary of Butler, had the idea of decorating the graves with crosses.

She asked Warren “Bill” Watson, a member of Meridian Veterans known for his woodworking, to make the markers.

“The auxiliary does a lot for us,” Watson said. “I think it was a great idea to remember the vets.”

The auxiliary paid for the material, which cost about $30.

Watson decided to make the crosses dark brown and in a simple style, to evoke the Old Rugged Cross of the famous song, he said. He made them of a composite decking material that “stands up to all weather,” Watson said. “It'll be maintenance-free and it'll last.”

Watson, who had a stroke and does not have full use of one arm, took about two hours to complete the project, which might take an able person 10 minutes, he said.

“They're beautiful,” Judy Volchko of Butler, president of the Ladies Auxiliary, said of the crosses, which were installed last month. “It's our way of saying, ‘We recognize you and thank you'” for serving.

The women erected two crosses marking a row of flat markers for seven veterans who were cremated, Volchko said the auxiliary will have five more crosses made to honor each of the seven.

“People shouldn't remember them just because it's holiday time,” Leroy said.

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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