SAUGUS — Visitors will notice the uniform rows of bright white grave markers, standing on plush emerald grass in the veterans section of Riverside Cemetery.
What they won’t notice is the man who, day after day, quietly tends to the grave sites.
Gordon Shepard, a U.S. Army veteran, just completed a restoration project on the Civil War section of the cemetery.
Shepard, a Vietnam veteran, raised $12,000 and spent the past five years working on the project. He completed it just in time for it to be viewed by crowds of spectators on Memorial Day.
This isn’t the first time Shepard has dedicated his time to serving those who have served. The volunteer estimates over the past 12 years, more than $40,000 has been donated to help fund various restoration and improvement projects.
“It’s been a long time doing this, but it’s worth every second,” said Shepard, 72. “Especially when a family member comes down here and realizes their loved one was not sacrificed for nothing.”
It all started more than a decade ago when Shepard was visiting the resting place of an old friend. Richard “Dicky” Devine was a neighbor and a friend to Shepard for many years. Both men served in Vietnam, exchanging letters, until Devine was killed in 1968 in the Tet Offensive.
Shepard returned home and visited his friend’s grave site year after year. One day, he noticed Devine’s plaque was beginning to sink into the ground. He looked at the one beside it. It bore the name of another hero, someone else’s friend or family member, yet it was partially covered by grass and dirt. He knew it had been years since anyone had tended to it. Shepard looked around. Many of the plaques marking names of his fellow soldiers were in disrepair.
He began cleaning up Devine’s plaque and then the one beside it. Then he conquered the one beside that. He’d show up early, 5 or 6 a.m. every day, to continue cleaning up the graves. Shepard said he always left by 8 a.m., afraid that if he got caught, somebody would try to stop him.
Until he became too tired to wake up before the sun each day. To his great pleasure, the park superintendent told him that if he cleaned one, he’d better clean them all.
“I told him I intended to,” said Shepard.
Soon Shepard had restored 400 grave sites belonging to veterans. He raised the plaques from the ground with help from the VFW. In the beginning, he visited every day to trim the grass and complete other tasks. He raised money to install more than 430 feet of curbing around the veterans section to protect the outer markers. It served a dual purpose. It allowed the grass to grow more plush without pouring over the edges of the cemetery’s narrow roads. But it’s the sprinkler system he installed that keeps the lawn emerald green.
Shepard raised more than $10,000 to install custom-made flag poles surrounding the veterans section.
Some tasks required more research than others.
To learn how to fix the jagged rows of white headstones marking the graves of World War I veterans, he rang up a groundskeeper of the Arlington National Cemetery to ask how he kept the headstones in such pristine order.
He learned a useful trick, but it took patience. It was five years before the stark white stones stood completely uniform.
“It’s important,” said Shepard. “Family members want to see that they’re being taken care of.”
Eight graves sat unmarked, some for as long as five decades, until Shepard tracked down their plaques and brought them home to sit proudly in the cemetery. Along the way, he met people who knew the veterans and could tell stories about each of them.
He took the same level of care in restoring the Civil War section.
“I’m restoring history, not replacing history,” said Shepard.
The plaques in the Civil War section were mismatched. Some were taller than others and almost all of them differed in style and font. Shepard found one that was legible and used a combination of the different styles, and used the stone as a model when he recreated the markers.
“Some of these guys, they saw some action,” he said. “There’s no question about that.”
Shepard found an old picture of the monument from the historical society and learned that two small ledges once held stacks of cannon balls. He reached out to another veteran volunteer, Nick Milo, who helped him replace them with stacks of granite balls.
The project was completed at the end of April.
“Hopefully by setting it up the way it’s supposed to be done, the next person will take care of it the same way,” said Shepard.