THE ADVOCATE ASKS: An interview with Vietnam War vet Gordon Shepard on Riverside Cemetery’s Civil War Restoration project
Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we went to Riverside Cemetery to ask Gordon Shepard about some major work that was completed recently at the Civil War veterans’ burial plot – the latest of several veterans’ gravesite projects he’s worked on at the cemetery on a volunteer basis. Shepard, 71, is a 1965 Saugus High School graduate. He is a retired letter carrier who worked out of the Lynn Post Office for 34 years. He and his wife, Debra, are Saugus natives and longtime residents of the town. A U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, Shepard has been doing volunteer work at the cemetery for a decade. He was named the 2014 Saugus Man of the Year at that year’s Founders Day for untold hours of work maintaining some 400 veterans’ graves in the cemetery’s three military lots. Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: Gordon, I can’t help but notice all of the great work completed recently at the Civil War veterans’ burial plot. Please give me a rundown on the latest phase of your volunteer project here at Riverside Cemetery that’s been going on for well over a couple of years now.
A: I started the project about three years ago. The big thing right now – I needed Nick Milo to come in and help me out with this thing. Nick was huge on this project because he’s an engineer. Through his expertise, he helped get the right size on the cannonballs. Nick also helped get the proper measurements of the posts for mounting the individual plaques for each of the Civil War veterans.
Q: I notice that you have two sets of cannonballs. Those are new, right?
A: Yes. There are four cannonballs on each side, each one mounted on a platform next to each of the two granite cannons at the entrance.
Q: Okay. So, when did those go up.?
A: Three weeks ago.
Q: So, that’s a new thing. Okay, please tell me a little bit about those posts in the ground that hold the individual plaques, shields, markers – or whatever you want to call them – for each of the Civil War soldiers buried here.
A: The final phase of the project will be putting the lettering on the plaques. They’re going to be engraved in black, so they stand out. Then I’m going to repoint the entire wall here. I had a guy down here last week, and he said he would be willing to do it, and I liked the way he talked about doing it. So, he’s going to inject down inside the cavity. That will be just about it, except that I’d like to put a curb around the entire thing also to protect it a little more because people run over the grass and the sprinklers.
Q: So, a lot’s been done. You’ve got the flagstaff put in before and a replica of the flag that has flown over Fort Sumter.
A: Yes, it’s a replica of the flag with 33 stars. I thought it was fitting to have that there, because that was the first battle of the Civil War, and you’ve got that little sign there telling about it.
Q: Now, when this is complete – and what’s the timetable now? What are you looking at?
A: I’m not really looking at a timetable, because I don’t want to rush anybody. Because when we do the lettering, it’s got to be proper; it’s got to be right. I don’t want to be rushing around with people’s markers and making mistakes.
Q: Well, give me a ballpark. Will it be another year?
A: No, I should have it done by the end of this year.
Q: The end of this year?
A: I think so. I don’t know about the curbing.
Q: So, will this be done in time for Veterans Day (Nov. 11)? Will that be possible?
A: Yes, but it’s not set in stone.
Q: No pun intended, right!
A: Ha! Ha!
Q: Okay, you had a situation where you couldn’t read the writing on a lot of those plaques.
A: Yes. Out of the 25, there are probably 10 that were completely unidentifiable; you couldn’t read anything on them at all. Then there were another 15 where you could read some parts of it; for some, you probably could read 40 percent of what was on it. And there were some that you could read, but within five years, you wouldn’t be able to read them at all. So, I decided to redo them all.
Q: So, there are 26 individuals who are buried in that plot, and that would include the unknown soldier? Saugus has its own unknown soldier.
A: Right, so everybody who is in there is accounted for. I don’t know where the unknown came from, but he’s buried with the others.
Q: So, part of the research – you had to go over to find out who those people were – you had to go over documents to identify their burial spots.
A: Right. We went to the Cemetery Department. They had some stuff that the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic] people gave me, and I went through all their records.
Q: Now, who helped you with the research?
A: Pretty much I did it on my own, but Nick Milo helped me out quite a bit on what this burial plot once looked like.
Q: Please tell me what Nick did.
A: He wanted to make sure he got the posts right to hold in the plaques, and the measurements right for those cannonballs. He’s the one who figured out how big the balls are going to be. I didn’t know how big the balls were going to be. He came down with all of his protractors and measuring equipment, because he’s an engineer. And they fit perfect and then, of course, he was involved with the measurements for the new posts that replaced the ones coming up out of the ground. And Nick is the one who came up with all of the measurements on the plaques and where the drill holes should be, so Nick was huge – getting this done for me right – just huge.
Q: Now, please tell me about those posts. It looks like the older ones are different lengths. And the replacements you just showed me are all one length.
A: That’s right. The new ones are 30 inches tall, and they go into the ground eight to 12 inches, with a lot of crushed stone. The older ones, some of them I find out of the ground every time I cut the grass.
Q: But the original ones look like they are different lengths.
A: Yes, they are: anywheres from a foot to 20 inches.
Q: Now, those cannon balls, those replace some that years ago were stolen.
A: Yes. Yes. I have an old picture – as you can see, the cannonballs are right there, and these gentlemen here are all Civil War veterans.
Q: What year was that picture taken?
A: I don’t know. It just says pre-1970, but as you can see, here’s one guy dressed up in his uniform and another guy dressed up in his uniform. I would say it’s back in the 1890’s or so. It’s a picture from the Historical Society.
Q: So, what’s been the most challenging aspect of this project?
A: Getting those posts all lined up in a straight line – that was a huge part – and making sure they are all level: up and down, sideways, back and forth, up on top.
Q: And how much has it cost to date on the project?
A: I’ve got about $9,000 invested in this already, with the cannonballs, the posts and the plaques that will be engraved with the veterans’ names. Of course, I’m saving a lot of money by doing a lot of the work myself as a volunteer. Tim [Fawcett, Jr.] and Andy [DePatto] helped me do the important work on those posts this week. I don’t know what it would cost for the labor of the project. But these guys put in a lot of hours this week with the restoration work.
Q: So, how many hours have you put into the project so far? I guess the question would be “How many thousands of hours?”
A: I don’t know. It’s been about three years; I have been working on this for a long time. It’s hard to tell, when you consider time spent looking up things, calling people and getting them to call you back. Yeah, quite a while,
Q: What’s the most interesting thing you learned in the course of this project?
A: Well, all these men up here – you see it says “Grand Army of the Republic” … but it doesn’t tell what regiment they were in or what company they were in. Well, the other day, I took out my phone and I googled this particular fellow, and he was in the 17th regiment, Company F. That regiment was in battles at Shiloh, Gettysburg, Antietam and a host of other ones, so the man saw a bunch of combat, and nobody ever knew this by looking at his marker. But there’s different regiments and regiments were a big thing back then, more than battalions and stuff like that. Each state had their own regiment. Like, they had a 17th regiment in Vermont and a 17th regiment in New York and a 17th regiment in Massachusetts. So, you have to google 17th regiment of Massachusetts to get their history. It’s very interesting. I hope that when it’s all done, everybody can actually read the names, that people will come down here, and they will take the time to show their kids or their grandparents who’s there.
Q: A good project would be – like, these are 26 soldiers, including the unknown soldier, which you will never know about – let’s find out everything about them. So you have 25 soldiers; if you get 25 Saugonians buried here, at some point a good project would be to research what their military history was and what they did in the community later.
A: Yes. I think that would be a good school project for a history class. I think some students should come down here and do this as a community service project.
Q: Do some gravestone rubbings, maybe?
A: Oh yeah. We could do some rubbings, we could do everything down here, once I get it all squared away for them. It would be a nice class project.
Q: Yes, everything you can find out through researching about each of these soldiers, it’s all accessible through the government or military service websites, or through researching online.
Q: So, what do you see coming from this project? I mean, you are the heart and soul of this project. You’re getting some help from some people, of course.
A: I’ve been getting a lot of help from a few people. Nick Milo, I can’t thank him enough for all the work he’s done.
Q: Anybody else that you would like to acknowledge?
A: David DeFilippo of Woodlawn Cemetery Monuments in Everett. He was huge in helping me out to contact the right people in getting this marble. We were having a real hard time getting it, and Nick knew David DeFilippo. He introduced me to him and we started talking. And he said, “Yeah, I’ll help you out with this to get the marble.” Because the marble is very hard to get. Most of the marble quarries are closed down in Massachusetts, and we found two up in Vermont. One wanted to help us out and the other didn’t, so David DeFilippo helped us, and it took about a year to get all of this stuff together.
Q: And these two guys over here? They’ve been up here several times helping you this week. Please describe what they’ve done.
A: Andy [DePatto] and Tim [Fawcett, Jr.] deserve a lot of credit for the work that got done this week. Oh, they dug the holes for me, set the stones, put the crushed stones in there and lugged the stuff around. Those things [the posts] weigh 90 pounds, you know; each one of those posts weighs 90 pounds, so it’s a little heavy for a 71-year-old guy to lift them.
Q: I can imagine, and they helped with the cannonballs?
A: No, Nick did that pretty much all by himself. He got the drills, this, that and the other thing. That was his baby. He did a great job. Look at them. They’re beautiful.
Q: And those cannonballs replaced cannonballs that disappeared?
Q: So, they were, like, stolen years ago?
A: Oh, a long time ago
Q: What were the other cannonballs made of?
A: I think they were made of granite, but if you look at this picture – if you look at these granite balls and the ones in the picture, they are pretty much the same color, so they weren’t metal. And they wouldn’t put metal there, because metal would rust.
Q: What other interesting tidbits have you learned while working on this project, perhaps about the original burial plot?
A: Well, it wasn’t taken care of properly, as we can all see that – a lot neglect over the years – but it’s been tough with cuts in staff to keep up with the work. Now it’s on grass and a green and starting to look better again.
Q: Completion of this project is a real boost to anybody in the town who is interested in the history of Saugus or in the Civil War.
A: Sure. They’ll be able to come down and look these people up and see what regiment they served in, what company they were in and what battles they fought in. Some of these people were in the Navy.
One of the things I want to tell you, too. I’m not changing anything on these plaques. I don’t want anybody to think that I’m adding something or subtracting something to these markers, because I’m not. These markers are going to contain the original information of what’s up there. Some men up there, like F.W. Blainey, was in the United States Navy. And that’s all it says, and that’s all I am going to put back. I know when he died and I know when he was born, but if it’s not on his original marker, I’m not going to change it. It’s all going to be the same. Whatever is there now is going to be put back. That’s why it’s so important to get that right.
Q: Any plans to put a little placard with more detail, like you did to highlight the story of the Ft. Sumer flag?
A: No, not unless you’d like to do one!
Q: Well, it’s quite a project. You’ve been involved in a lot of projects around the cemetery.
A: Yeah, over the course of 10 years.
Q: This is probably one of your more fun projects?
A: Yeah. It’s becoming very rewarding: the way everything is setting up and taking place. Everything is nice and level and squared away, and it’s the way it should be. It shouldn’t be down on the ground. It shouldn’t be buried. I do what I do because I enjoy it. I want the veterans buried in this cemetery to have the right recognition – whether it’s the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam or Korea … I want people who served our country and who are buried here to be recognized for what they’ve done
Q: Anything else on the project that you want to talk about or would like to share? By the time this project is done, what will it cost? Just the materials themselves?
A: I think it’s going to cost well over $10,000 or $11,000.
Q: If people want to support this project, what do they do?
A: Well, they can send a check and address it to “Civil War Restoration” – no amount is too small.
Q: And send that check to?
A: Care of Gordon Shepherd, 26 Waban St., Saugus, MA 01906. And I’ll get that and I will put it in the special account just for the Civil War Restoration.
Anyone interested in more information about the Civil War Restoration project can contact Shepard at 781-231-0374.