A Bangor Daily News paperboy, Morrill Worcester, won a trip to the Nation’s Capital. While there, he was able to visit Arlington National Cemetery. The rows of headstones made an indelible impression. Morrill never forgot the sacrifices of all the men and women who shaped the nation. As a young man, Morrill ran three fruit and produce stands to pay his way through the University of Maine. He then started a side business, delivering a few dozen-holiday wreaths to the New England Produce Center in Boston. That small side business turned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise that distributes more than half a million wreaths nationwide each year.
On a cold day in 1992, Morrill discovered he had a few extra Maine balsam wreaths. Morrill remembered the stark rows of headstones in Arlington. He decided to donate the extra wreaths to one of the oldest sections of the cemetery, a section that received fewer visitors with each passing year.
Every subsequent year, Morrill Worcester would send his surplus over to Arlington, where local volunteers would lay them. About 5000 wreaths per year were donated.
In 2005, a photo of snow-covered headstones decorated with wreaths circulated around the Internet and captured national attention. Worcester received thousands of requests from people who wanted to start similar projects at cemeteries in their communities. For each request, Worcester sent seven wreaths (one for each branch of the military and POW/MIA). In 2006, the Civil Air Patrol and other civic organizations laid wreaths simultaneously in more than 150 locations.
More requests poured in the following year, and Wreaths Across America was established to further promote remembrance of veterans. By 2008, wreaths were laid in more than 300 locations in every state, Puerto Rico and 24 cemeteries overseas. Dec. 13, 2008, was unanimously voted by U.S. Congress as “Wreaths Across America Day.”
This year, over 100,000 wreaths will be laid on the graves of military men and women across America with the help of more than 60,000 volunteers.
Major Larry Lang is currently in the Air Force Auxiliary. Years ago, Lang was a medic in the Vietnam War where he earned three purple hearts. After a nearby grenade explosion, Lang thought he wouldn’t live long enough to see his home country again.
“I was very lucky that I came back and I just want to honor those that didn’t come back. To be able to place a wreath on their grave and let the people of the U.S. know how proud we are of the people that serve in our military today is great,” said Lang.
Every aspect of the program relies on volunteers and donations, from transportation of the wreaths all the way to Virginia to signature red, hand-tied bows. Larry Ross, an elementary school teacher from Canaan, Maine, has taken several groups of his students to help with the wreath laying. The program also includes a special ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
And what of the boy who did not forget? Morrill Worcester is fairly humble about his idea and the movement it spawned. He is quoted in a 2006 article about Wreaths Across America:
“It’s a tremendous honor and privilege to be able to do this. For the officials at the cemetery to take down the chain across President Kennedy’s grave and let you right into the site. To do a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. To allow us to decorate an entire section. If the [fallen] get their due, then I get my due.”
“I started the wreath business in 1971, and I was 21 years old. And if you look at all the people who were killed in combat for America over all of the conflicts that we’ve had, they average 21 years old. I’ve had a tremendous experience in life. Those people never had what I had, and yet they’re the ones who made it possible for me and everyone else.
“If I could, I’d decorate every one of them.”
These green wreaths with red ribbons across a sea of white tombstones reminds us that there is hope even when times are overcast. Wreaths Across America endures to honor soldiers, their families, and their surviving comrades.
“I have a lot to be thankful for,” says Worcester, “and that has a lot to do with those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”