Metro

THOMAS FARRAGHER

Creating a resting place befitting a hero

Robert Gardner stood outside the pavilion at the Massachusetts National Cemetery where a service was held for Air Force veteran Laurence Phillips. Gardner will help place the flowers and the casket into a truck to be transported to the burial plot nearby.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Robert Gardner stood outside the pavilion at the Massachusetts National Cemetery where a service was held for Air Force veteran Laurence Phillips. Gardner will help place the flowers and the casket into a truck to be transported to the burial plot nearby.

BOURNE — He dug his first grave the old-fashioned way. One careful shovelful after another. Through a layer of dark topsoil. And then several feet of the caramel-colored clay. Finally, a hole in the ground. A sacred place of deep gratitude, respect, and eternal rest.

He wanted to get the feel of the soil. He wanted to get the corners precise. The graves here belong to heroes. And heroes, he said, have earned perfect symmetry and the truest alignment.

“It takes extreme self-restraint,’’ Bob Gardner tells me, standing over a freshly dug grave at the Massachusetts National Cemetery here. “People driving by think it’s easy, but it’s not. It’s not easy to train someone to do that.

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“Construction people dig holes. They just dig, dig, dig. You can’t do it that way here. There’s a difference. It’s similar to what surgeons do. It’s got to be surgically correct.’’

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Surgically correct. That’s been Bob Gardner’s workplace ethos since he first walked onto the cemetery’s hallowed grounds here shortly after its dedication in 1980.

He arrives early. Leaves late. He knows every inch of this breathtakingly beautiful place — a place of pine and oak trees, of winding roads and sloping landscapes. It’s a place where the Kentucky bluegrass is trimmed to a uniform height of 3 inches, where through merciless winters and the brutal heat of summer, some 50 burials a week are conducted with ramrod precision — privates accorded the same respect as generals.

“They have their rank but they’re not treated any differently because of what their rank was,’’ Gardner, 73, said during a break from his job of nearly 40 years. “Everybody is the same here.’’

Bob Gardner, the son of a World War I Purple Heart recipient, is getting ready for another Memorial Day now.

Gardner helped with the removal of a vault lid at a gravesite.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Gardner helped with the removal of a vault lid at a gravesite.
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He’s done it all here. He’s buried Medal of Honor recipients. He’s watched a heartbroken young mother, an Air Force veteran, tearfully commit her stillborn infant to the grave. He’s heard the echo of taps countless times through the rustling trees and emerald hills.

Along the way, the Vietnam War veteran has earned the respect of the more than two dozen employees here committed to excellence.

“He’s our go-to guy. He’s been here since Day One,’’ said Brian Matson, 57, who worked alongside Gardner for nearly 20 years burying veterans and their family members before Gardner became his boss, or “work leader.’’

Work leader. It’s a term that means gravedigger, foreman, and keeper of institutional knowledge.

“Bob treats every burial with the utmost dignity,’’ Matson told me, sitting at the controls of a small backhoe, ready for another interment. “He’s the first one here. He’s the last one to leave. He’s like the old-school guy. He works, works, works.’’

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The cemetery’s acting director is Richard Wallace. After retiring as chief master sergeant in the Air Force, he was looking to continue service to his country in a second career.

‘Bob treats every burial with the utmost dignity. He’s like the old-school guy. He works, works, works.’

Brian Matson, colleague of Bob Gardner 

“This is a home,’’ he said. “This is the final location of our veterans, and to send them off in an honorable, dignified manner, it means a lot to me. Because I know one day I’m going to be in a cemetery.’’

Wallace, a 54-year-old New Jersey native, started here two years ago. When he met Gardner for the first time, he didn’t quite know what to make of the guy.

“I was like: ‘Who’s that old guy? Why is he not in Florida enjoying the weather somewhere?’ ’’ Wallace recalled. “Then you talk to him. Very sharp guy top to bottom. His body isn’t what it used to be, and he’ll tell you that. But when you need information about something, a burial, he knows.’’

Yes. Bob Gardner knows.

Gardner, 73, has worked at the Massachusetts National Cemetery for nearly 40 years.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Gardner, 73, has worked at the Massachusetts National Cemetery for nearly 40 years.

Drafted in 1966, he spent his year in Vietnam in Cu Chi, a suburban district of what was then Saigon. “You just do what you have to to survive,’’ he said of his wartime service, which was followed by 30 years in the National Guard.

He knows where the remains of Richard David DeWert lie. DeWert, a Navy hospital corpsman, was killed in South Korea on April 5, 1951, when the Taunton native was attached to the First Marine Division. Just 19 when he died, he received the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.’’

As we stood over that hero’s grave the other day under a cobalt blue, springtime sky, Gardner’s eyes filled with tears. His voice caught. There is nothing — he makes clear — rote about the work he’s performed tens of thousands of times now.

The National Cemetery here also holds the remains of Major General Charles W. Sweeney of Lowell. He flew the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the second atom bomb strike on Japan in the twilight of World War II. Sweeney, who lived in Milton, died in 2004 at the age of 84.

An unknown US soldier from the Civil War lies here in section 5, grave 107. His remains were discovered during highway excavation in South Carolina in the 1980s. The buttons on his uniform identified him as a member of the Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry. He was buried here on Aug. 4, 1990.

The first person buried here — section 1, grave 1 — was Melina Olive Shaw. She was an Army private and a military telephone operator. She was 90 when she died and was buried on Oct. 14, 1980.

And now it was time for the cemetery to receive another veteran — Laurence A. Phillips, an Air Force veteran who grew up in Quincy and lived in West Bridgewater. He died on May 4.

Gardner, who recently had both hips replaced, stood off to one side. Mourners filed under a wooden canopy. There was a brief prayer and the sound of taps. An Air Force sergeant lifted the US flag from the coffin and folded it into a triangle, its creases sharp and true.

And then they presented it on behalf of a grateful nation to Patricia Sprague of Kingston, Mr. Phillips’s niece.

Bob Gardner’s attention to detail and meticulousness did not go unnoticed.

“He’s so kindhearted,’’ Sprague told me, holding the Stars and Stripes against her chest. “He’s so dedicated. People like Bob are going to maintain my uncle’s dignity.’’

As the funeral cortege drove away, Bob Gardner helped as Mr. Phillips’s coffin was prepared for burial.

He collected bouquets of fresh yellow flowers and made sure they would follow the old Air Force veteran to his final resting place.

It was the respectful and dignified thing to do.

It’s the kind of thing that still brings tears to Bob Gardner’s eyes.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.