In This State: Who tends this hallowed ground?

The view from the chapel at Vermont's Veterans Memorial Cemetery is a spectacular vista of green fields and blue mountains that makes stained glass superfluous. Photo by Nancy Graff.

The view from the chapel at the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph is a spectacular vista of green fields and blue mountains that makes stained glass superfluous. Caretaker Bob Durkee says it is not as well known in the state as it should be, but it still attracts a steady stream of visitors who appreciate its stone walls, colorful trees, vistas, rows of markers, bushes, and flowers. Photo by Nancy Graff.

Editor’s note: Nancy Price Graff is a Montpelier freelance writer and editor. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. 

In autumn, when the trees are bare and the land can be read as easily as a book, the headstones curve and dip along the subtle contours of the hillside, the markers as precisely aligned with their neighbors as soldiers standing in formation. But unlike stones in practically every other cemetery in Vermont, none of these leans or lists, no matter winter’s violence. At the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph, Bob Durkee’s job is to see that they don’t.

Honor Guard: Unwilling to allow even autumn's leaves to distract from the focus of an interment, Bob Durkee sweeps the bright green lawn clear where the honor guard awaits the burial. Photo by Nancy Graff

Honor Guard: Unwilling to allow even autumn’s leaves to distract from the focus of an interment, Bob Durkee sweeps the bright green lawn clear where the honor guard awaits the burial. Photo by Nancy Graff

Durkee has been in charge of the grounds at the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery since the cemetery was dedicated in July 1993. He attended the first interment two days after the dedication, and has attended nearly all of the more than 3,000 interments that have occurred in the years since.

Once, twice, even — occasionally — three times a day, he digs a hole for a casket or an urn and waits at a respectful distance through a family’s graveside service.

Notwithstanding how many times he has heard the sharp retort of rifles, he still flinches involuntarily when the Randolph American Legion Post #9’s honor guard cleaves the air with its salute to the fallen. Then follows the keening sound of “Taps,” played by another aging member of the Post. He watches other members of the honor guard, this pair from Camp Johnson, fold the flag and hand it reverently to the deceased’s closest relative. When everyone else has dispersed, Durkee fills the hole and finishes up on his knees, using his hands to pat the sod into place with such care that it’s hard to find the breaks in the grass.

It is a job that would overwhelm some people. Even Durkee, whose thoughts are rarely far from this cemetery, finds the suicides of so many young Vermont veterans over the past decade deeply troubling.

“It’s the saddest part of my job,” he admits.

Bob Durkee on the job: Since 1993 Bob Durkee has overseen the burials of more than 3,000 veterans, their spouses, and dependent children at the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph. Photo by Nancy Graff

Bob Durkee on the job: Since 1993 Bob Durkee has overseen the burials of more than 3,000 veterans, their spouses, and dependent children at the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph. Photo by Nancy Graff

The precise way Bob Durkee lays the tools of his trade in the bed of his truck reflects the attention to detail that distinguishes his devotion to the cemetery and the veterans whose remains rest there. Photo by Nancy Graff

The precise way Bob Durkee lays the tools of his trade in the bed of his truck reflects the attention to detail that distinguishes his devotion to the cemetery and the veterans whose remains rest there. Photo by Nancy Graff

For the most part, though, Durkee’s soothing air of competence belies the emotional aspects of his work. He divines in every shovelful of dirt, in May’s spectacular display of apple blossom, in every piece of polished marble, and in the endless whine of his crew’s lawnmowers, the higher purpose of his labors.

“Because I didn’t serve, I feel like it’s my way of honoring them,” he says of his work on behalf of veterans whose remains come to rest at the cemetery. “And if a veteran wants to talk, I let them talk. It’s more than a job for me.”

Reared in nearby Tunbridge on the Durkee homestead, the only homestead in Vermont still in the hands of the family that settled it, Durkee spent his youth helping out on the farm. His first paying job was mowing the Durkee cemetery on the family’s property. When he finally left, he moved to Randolph and went to work for Vermont Technical College on its grounds maintenance crew.

In 1993, 44 years after a group of Vermont veterans began lobbying for a cemetery dedicated to those who had served, the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery opened on land Vermont Technical College had purchased from a farmer whose fields abutted the college’s campus. The cemetery provides free burial plots and marble or granite markers, either upright or flat, for all veterans interred. For a small fee, veterans’ spouses and dependent children may also be interred here.

All Durkee had to do to report for his new job was walk down the hill behind the campus. He thought his responsibilities would be “just mowing grass, burying people, and putting in headstones, but I didn’t have that attitude for long. Seeing people come here changed the way I saw things. I started thinking that it’s my job to take the sadness off their faces,” he says, referring to the mourners. He does this by literally wearing out shovels and maintaining one of the most beautiful veterans cemeteries in the country.

“The only training I had was visual, going around to different cemeteries and seeing how they did things. I taught myself to set stones. I learned a lot about the stones and finishes. I started making my own tools,” he says, pointing to the rubber bumpers he designed for the lawnmowers so that metal and stone never meet.

“It’s amazing how long it takes to tend to all the details,” he says. And the workload is only going to increase. An expansion of the cemetery will begin next summer.

In the fall of 2003 he added two days of vacation to a weekend and traveled to Arlington National Cemetery, where he had arranged a behind-the-scenes tour to see how the feds managed their most famous cemetery. He arrived, as arranged, at 5:30 a.m. No one was there to meet him. He persuaded the guards to let him start his own tour. Eventually, the quality-control officer caught up with him, but by then Durkee had seen enough.

“I was appalled,” he says of the chipped stones, trampled grass, and sloppy trim work. He won’t return to Arlington, but he would enjoy a busman’s holiday to see the American cemetery at Normandy.

Durkee also used his own time to help out after Tropical Storm Irene in September 2011. The night of the storm, he drove to the cemetery to check on things. Within the Circle of Flags at the entrance, flags were slapping sharply against their poles, so he decided to take them down before the wind gusts shredded them. Lowering wind-whipped, soaked flags is not a one-man job, but he eventually wrestled them down and into the back of his truck. He saved them by taking them to the maintenance shed to dry out.

Veterans who wish to be interred at the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery should contact the Vermont Office of Veterans Affairs in Montpelier. Photo by Nancy Graff

Veterans who wish to be interred at the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery should contact the Vermont Office of Veterans Affairs in Montpelier. Photo by Nancy Graff

Two days later, assured that the cemetery was OK, he traveled by truck, ATV, and foot to Rochester, where floodwaters had undermined a cemetery, washing up caskets and upending them, spilling remains into the riverbed.

“I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t developed respect for the dead here,” he says. Even so, the work was regarded as so traumatic for the people who performed it that Durkee’s supervisor offered to provide counseling. Durkee declined. “I had a good idea what to expect. Most people couldn’t have done it, but I knew I could, so I went.”

The Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery is not full, but the developed area is approaching capacity; hence the plans to expand. The row upon row of nearly identical marble and granite markers marching down the hill from the white chapel convey the idea of corporate identity just as military uniforms do. But Durkee doesn’t see these graves in the aggregate. For him, this job is personal. The graves he tends are the resting places of servicemen and women who remain individuals even in death.

“There’s over 3,000 people interred here, and when someone asks where someone is buried, I often amaze myself. Sometimes I can tell them,” he says with uncharacteristic pride.

So he won’t mind getting down on his hands and knees in the spring to straighten any markers knocked askew by the long winter.

“I love this place,” he says, as if it didn’t show.

The Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph is one of the most spectacular veterans cemeteries in the country. Caretaker Bob Durkee says it is not as well known in the state as it should be, but it still attracts a steady stream of visitors who appreciate its stone walls, colorful trees, vistas, rows of markers, bushes, and flowers. Photo courtesy of Robert Durkee.

The Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph is one of the most spectacular veterans cemeteries in the country. Photo courtesy of Robert Durkee.

Comments

  1. Bob Orleck :

    Quote: “Because I didn’t serve, I feel like it’s my way of honoring them,” he says of his work on behalf of veterans whose remains come to rest at the cemetery. “And if a veteran wants to talk, I let them talk. It’s more than a job for me.”

    Thanks Bob. Job well done! I visit there often and am always moved by doing so.

    Good article and great pictures. This is the kind of story we need to see more of instead of the politically and greed motivated ones. Again, thanks!

  2. Kathy Leonard :

    A lovely piece Nancy; I’m happy to see this recognition of Bob’s caring and his careful work.
    I’ve spent a lot of time walking this piece of land – both before the cemetery was built and after – and have a deep affection for it.

  3. David Dempsey :

    Great job Bobby.

  4. Christopher Hill :

    I am a veteran, although not a combat vet. This was a superbly written article about a man who deserves respect and honor, just as he has shown it for the men and women and families he has served for twenty years. Thank you Bob for what you have done and thank you Nancy for letting us know about his labor of love and service.

  5. Jessamyn West :

    Thank you for this article about our local cemetery and the great work Bob Durkee has done for it and for the town and the veterans.

  6. Nancy Graff :

    There’s no need for anyone to thank me for writing this piece. It was a pleasure to meet Bob and an honor to bring him some well-deserved recognition for his dedication. This cemetery should be on every Vermonter’s list of special places to visit.

  7. Dale M. Kennedy :

    Thank you for your care and attention to detail. This was a great piece and you deserve the recognition. You are serving now.

  8. Larry Gosselin :

    I have a plot there. It is truly a wonderful place.

  9. This piece is exquisite…
    The quiet devotion & compassion of Bob Durkee & the insightful writing & inspired photography of Nancy Graff speak to any who would take the time to reflect & honor those who have given “…the last full measure…”(A. Lincoln, Gettysburg Address). Thank you, vtdigger.

  10. Maude Chater :

    I had the privilege of working with Bob Durkee for several years, and witnessed the extraordinary skill, dedication, patience and compassion that he brings to his work every day! And the cemetery is an exceptional hidden treasure!

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