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Kevin Cullen

A dead Navy veteran’s family could not be found, so the Ursuline girls stepped up

Ursuline Academy students were pallbearers for veteran Douglas W. Benson, who died without any known family.
Ursuline Academy students were pallbearers for veteran Douglas W. Benson, who died without any known family.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

After Donald Benson died at the VA hospital in Brockton a couple of weeks ago, officials couldn’t find his relatives.

He was 74 and spent the last months of his life in the hospital. Before that, he lived at a facility for veterans in central Massachusetts. Two good women who work in the veteran services office in Fitchburg, Michele Marino and Brenda Fitzgerald, tried their best to find some family.

But the paper trail went cold. Benson was living in Malden when he joined the Navy in 1965. He had a brother, Fred, and a sister, Betty, but they are dead. There was another brother, Benjamin, but it’s unclear where he is or if he’s even alive.

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So it fell to Bob and Bill Lawler. They run the Lawler & Crosby Funeral Home in West Roxbury, and, when they took it over from their dad, the late, great Robert Lawler Sr., they promised to carry on a tradition of burying the homeless and indigent, especially veterans.

Over the years, the Lawler brothers have enlisted boys at Roxbury Latin and Catholic Memorial to serve as pallbearers and mourners for people who might otherwise have none. The Lawler brothers have five daughters between them, all graduates of Ursuline Academy in Dedham. It occurred to them that the experience would benefit Ursuline girls, too.

Bill Lawler of Lawler & Crosby Funeral Home in West Roxbury helped Ursuline Academy students carry Benson’s casket.
Bill Lawler of Lawler & Crosby Funeral Home in West Roxbury helped Ursuline Academy students carry Benson’s casket.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

And so, on Tuesday, as a snowstorm closed in, Bill Lawler walked in front of Donald Benson’s casket, across the polished wood floor of the Ursuline gymnasium that had been converted to a makeshift chapel. Six Ursuline students, three on each side, rested their hands on the casket, guiding it slowly toward center court. Behind them, more than 100 girls, seniors and juniors, all clad in dark green blazers and plaid skirts, followed, two by two. All had volunteered to attend the funeral Mass.

Kathleen Ryan, a senior, read from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Another senior, Sabrina Nedder, read from the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, which was especially poignant, given Donald Benson’s struggles with homelessness.

“We know,” Sabrina read, “that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven.”

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The Rev. Don MacMillan, a Jesuit from St. Ignatius at Boston College, read from the Gospel according to John, observing that, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

As the first American combat troops hit the ground in Vietnam, Donald Benson swore an oath, willing to lay down his life, the priest said.

“He served us,” Father MacMillan said, “now we serve him.”

When Mass was ended, Bill Lawler led the procession outside, where a Navy honor guard removed the flag from Benson’s casket and carefully folded it as a bugler played Taps. A Navy officer handed the flag to Ursuline president Kate Levesque.

Then, as flurries fell, the pallbearers led the casket through a line of honor students formed on either side of the walkway, to the back of the hearse, for the trip to the veterans’ cemetery in Winchendon.

Molly Treseler, one of the pallbearers, considered it a distinct honor to participate. She said Donald Benson’s life and fate made the social justice issues they discuss in class more relevant, more real.

“No veteran should die homeless and alone,” she said. “No one should die homeless and alone.”

An hour before she left for school, four hours before she stood next to Donald Benson’s casket, Molly Treseler checked her e-mail and learned she had been accepted to the Naval Academy. She will join her sister, Catherine, who graduated from Ursuline last year, at the academy.

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Carrying all that and more, Molly Treseler, future Navy officer, did her solemn duty, escorting the casket of an old sailor she never met but will always remember, wishing him fair winds and following seas.

Ursuline students stood at attention in front of Benson’s casket.
Ursuline students stood at attention in front of Benson’s casket.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.