Gesture by Morrill Worcester ’73 becomes an American tradition
IT IS AN emotional, breathtaking sight: hundreds of thousands of neatly aligned headstones, each carefully adorned with a fragrant, dark green balsam wreath embellished with a hand-tied red velvet bow. The location: Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where the remains of more than 420,000 veterans, U.S. Presidents, and their family members are interred.
For 25 years the wreaths have appeared at Arlington each December. At first they graced a few thousand gravesites, confined to a section of the 154-year-old cemetery that would change each year. More recently, wreaths have been laid for all for whom the cemetery is their final rest- ing place. And thanks in large part to an iconic photo of a snow-covered, wreath-emblazoned
Arlington, the annual tribute to deceased military veterans has extended to cemeteries and memorial sites across the U.S. and abroad.
This year, on December 15th, more than 2,000,000 wreaths will be placed as part of National Wreaths Across America Day. The tradition has grown extensively as a result of added notoriety, generous supporters, and a field army of volunteers spread out across more than 1,500 locations.
And it all started with one person: Morrill Worcester ’73, of Columbia Falls, Maine.
WORCESTER WAS A sophomore at the University of Maine when he and fellow Black Bear Robert Stanley ’70 started selling produce at roadside stands in Washington County. “We were getting some of our product out of Boston,” says Worcester. “The people down there told us that come Christmas time, they’d be willing to buy wreaths off of us. So we purchased 500 wreaths that first year and sold them all.”
That was the start of Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, a small town on the Maine coast located about 50 miles west of the Canadian border. Over the years demand for the company’s product continued to grow, so in 1992, it began construction of a new wreath-making factory in Topsfield. Worcester mentioned to the carpenters working on the project that if they happened to see any wreaths for sale, he’d like to buy them for resale. “I wasn’t very bright,” he says chuckling, “because I gave them a checkbook.”
Around the 10th of December, the phone rang. It was his carpenters with good news. They had purchased about 8,000 wreaths, “enough to cover the new floor of the factory about three feet deep,” describes Worcester.
There was just one problem. The wreath-selling season typically ends by the beginning of December. “I had completely forgotten that I told them to do that,” says Worcester. “I about fell to the floor when I heard how many they had bought. There just wasn’t any market for them.”
Worcester didn’t want to throw the wreaths away, so he started brainstorming ways to use the bounty of balsam. A childhood visit to Arlington National Cemetery came to mind, sparking an idea. Worcester contacted then-U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe ’69 to share it and to get her help obtaining permission to place the wreaths on the gravestones of veterans buried at Arlington.
“When Morrill contacted my office, they had a surplus of wreaths, a noble idea, and a fervent desire to honor our nation’s fallen military heroes,” says Snowe. “We brainstormed to cut through bureaucratic red tape and connect the dots to make his dream a reality. It took many different military service organizations and private companies to contribute to the planning, transportation, and volunteer efforts at its inception, but Morrill had a vision and he was determined.”
Worcester’s good friend, James Prout, owned the Blue Bird Ranch trucking company, based nearby in Jonesboro. Prout volunteered to drive the 750 miles it would take to deliver the wreaths to Arlington. Worcester then contacted the Maine State Society of Washington, D.C., an organization of individuals who come from or have connections to Maine. Worcester connected with fellow UMaine alumnus Wayne Hanson ‘67 and other Maine State Society members; they gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to help lay the thousands of wreaths.
As volunteers placed the festooned balsam wreaths at the foot of the grave- stones, they read each veteran’s name out loud. (It’s a tradition they continue to this day. “When we place the wreaths, we raise the names up so that they are never forgotten,” explains Karen Worcester, Morrill’s wife.)
The Worcesters continued to travel to Arlington every December, placing wreaths with the assistance of an ever-growing pool of volunteers. In 2005, a photographer from the Pentagon snapped a photo of the wreaths. When the photo was published in early 2006, it became an Internet and media sensation. Overnight, the Worcesters’ lives changed forever.
“Within a week of that photo appearing online, Morrill had thousands and thousands of emails from all over the world,” says Karen Worcester. “Tons of people calling us too, all wanting to know if what they were seeing online was really happening.”
“That photograph changed everything,” adds Morrill Worcester.
Along with the calls and emails came donations. The Worcesters had not expected them and at the time didn’t have a proper use for them, so they hired someone to help them return the cash. “We sent back more than $10,000 [in donations] in the spring of 2006,” Karen says. But the letters and requests for people to get involved continued to pour in. “That’s when our family started brainstorming on how we could do more,” says Karen.
That December, the Worcesters and volunteers delivered a ceremonial wreath for each branch of the military to close to 200 locations around the country. They also made their annual trek to Arlington. But this time around, things were much different.
“I was riding in a car with the superintendent of Arlington,” says Morrill Worcester. “He says to me: ‘I gotta tell you, there’s 77 members of the media that are credentialed for this event. And that’s not all of them.’” Morrill would spend the next three hours being interviewed by every major news organization in the U.S. as well as film crews from Japan, Australia, Germany, the UK, and Canada.
IN 2007, THE Worcesters and a group of volunteers formed the non-profit Wreaths Across America to continue the tradition. That next year, Congress established National Wreaths Across America Day, to be observed annually on the third Saturday in December. Karen Worcester serves as Wreaths Across America executive director. Morrill Worcester’s fellow Black Bear, Wayne Hanson, currently chairs the organization’s board of directors.
A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Hanson recalled an encounter at Arlington in 2013 with a father whose son was buried there. The man had seen the wreaths in parts of the cemetery; how- ever his son’s grave was in a section that was not earmarked for wreaths that year.
“The gentleman stopped me to ask what the wreaths were for,” Hanson shared. “I proudly told him about Wreaths Across America and our mission to thank and remember the veterans for their service.”
Hanson says he will never forget the father’s reply.
“He asked, ‘What about my son?’”
Hanson chokes up at the memory. “I wondered how many other people had come to Arlington after that last wreath was placed and wondered why none were in front of their son’s or daughter’s graves. “Those four words still stick in my heart,” says Hanson. “It’s what drives me every year, to make sure no one ever asks me that again.”
Every year since then, Wreaths Across America has provided enough wreaths to cover every stone at Arlington.The Worcesters and Wreaths Across America have received more than 60 awards, including the prestigious Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s Patriot Award.
This year, the organization plans to provide approximately two million wreaths at 1,500 cemeteries, including Arlington. “Wreaths Across America is a special day on these hallowed grounds and one that so beautifully and visibly honors the servicemen and women who have served in every war our nation has ever fought,” says a spokesperson for Arlington National Cemetery. “This day is very meaningful to the families of those laid to rest here, our visitors and our employees.”
Plans are also being developed to lay wreaths on the 9,387 crosses in Normandy, France, “That will be the springboard for this to go worldwide,” explains Worcester. “We already do a ceremony in 27 American veteran cemeteries that are overseas. But it’s only one wreath. This will be the beginning of placing a wreath on every single one of those markers around the world.”
By 2028, Wreaths Across America hopes to place a wreath on each grave- stone of the 24 million veterans who have passed. “I never ever really thought it would happen,” says Worcester. “But now, I think it will.”