PRESTON, MINN. – Cumulus clouds competed with sunshine Sunday afternoon, sending rain showers now and then onto the crowd of about 1,000 people who sat and stood in the green pastures to help dedicate the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery on the outskirts of this community of about 1,300 people.
The Preston cemetery, only the second official state veterans cemetery — the other is in Little Falls, Minn. — sits on 169 acres donated to the state by Fillmore County. Ultimately, it will be able to hold 35,000 souls. This first phase has room for about 3,500.
The first two burials, both former mayors of Preston, were on Veterans Day 2015. There have been about 40 more since then, and demand is expected to be high. Four charter buses of veterans and their families plan to tour the cemetery this coming week, said Robert Gross, superintendent of the Preston cemetery.
Stuart Quanrud’s father, Clarence, a Navy veteran of the Korean War, was the first burial there.
“It’s very respectful to come out and pay your respects,” said Quanrud, of Preston.
Sunday was a day for ceremony and fuss, speeches and congratulations and, above all, giving thanks. Keynote speaker U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said that four years ago, a congressional field hearing was held in Preston. Afterward, Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., told him, “I don’t believe there’s any community more ready than what we just saw.”
Said Walz, “That is a testament to each and every one of you. Especially those of you who brought young children. This is about heritage, our shared heritage.”
Memorial Day, he said, is often seen as the kickoff to summer, a weekend to head to the lake, go boating, cook out and spend time with family.
“We’re here today to dedicate this hallowed ground,” he told the crowd of veterans, young and old, some of whom came with their spouses, their children and their grandchildren. “It’s evident that this community is ready to accept the responsibility of eternal vigilance over this land. Many of us will spend our eternities here with our brothers in arms. But the next generation will come and the next. And keeping this place and its memory alive is our responsibility.”
Cemetery superintendent Gross led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to 101-year-old Ernie Corson, a World War II veteran.
Mari Blanchard of Spring Valley, Minn., came with her husband, Mike, a Navy veteran. She said her mother was buried at the cemetery on May 16. Her father will be, too, eventually.
“Isn’t this something?” she said of the dedication. “I’ve had goosebumps more than once.”
Iraq war veterans Kristen Whalen Rhodes, 33, and her husband, Adam, brought their two daughters, ages 8 months and 2. Whalen Rhodes said she grew up in nearby Harmony; the couple met in the Army.
Chris Miller, 84, of Rochester, a retired Air Force colonel who said he served in the Korean, Vietnam and Cold wars, sat on his walker next to his friend Harold Dison, 87, a veteran of the Army National Guard.
“I came out here today to pay my respects to my B-36 and B-52 crew members who have passed away,” Miller said. “We’re not going to be visitors for very long. We’ll be planted here,” he said with a laugh.
Walz quoted from a speech that Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, the first rabbi to be a Marine chaplain, gave after the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II:
“Here lie officers and men, black and white, rich men and poor, together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.”
$10.7 million project
Officials with the state Department of Veterans Affairs started talking about a new state veterans cemetery almost six years ago following the success of the Little Falls cemetery, which opened in 1994.
The Preston cemetery got underway when Fillmore County donated the land in 2013. Of the total project cost of $10.7 million, $10.1 million was federal money, $600,000 was state. When construction began in 2013, it took almost two full years to turn the heavily wooded area into a bucolic setting of new grass, plantings and rolling hills, said David Swantek, senior administrator of memorial affairs for the Minnesota State Veterans Cemeteries.
He said 50,000 veterans live within a 75-mile radius of the cemetery. The state provides, for no cost, the burial space and its perpetual care. The headstone is paid for by the federal government. A veteran’s spouse also can be buried there for “a nominal fee.”
Hundreds of American flags flew Sunday on the entry road to the cemetery and were carried by the Patriot Guard riders, color guard members from Preston and other small communities nearby and the Minnesota Military Funeral Honors Team.
A bald eagle circled the sky below the first of two flyovers of B-25, B-36 and B-52 bombers. The second was in the “Missing Man” formation.
Said Walz, “May God bless each and every one of us in this great nation. May God bless the souls who we inter here now and in the future.”