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Iowa City duo team up to clean veterans' headstones

Iowa Veterans Cemetery
Posted at 10:44 AM, Jul 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-31 11:44:41-04

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Beneath a warm July sun, 19-year-old Aaron Schultz scrubs away at a veteran's headstone in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City, darkened and weathered by the elements and time.

He's joined by Madonna White, 67, who uses a stool to sit so she can better get up as she scrapes and sprays the dull-looking headstones.

Between Schultz and White, both slightly pink in the face as they work in the afternoon heat, they have restored an estimated 100 or more headstones.

It started when Schultz was walking around a Solon cemetery last year to visit the gravesite of a neighbor. He discovered a ground-level headstone that was all black. Another that Schultz recognized to be an expensive blue pearl granite was practically buried beneath the ground.

"That made me really sad, because you look in the National Cemetery, (the headstones are) completely preserved," he told the Press-Citizen.

He wondered if there was a way to clean it. He found help in a niche community on YouTube, Tik Tok and more.

While Schultz was looking at those videos, he discovered the story of Andrew Lumish, dubbed "The Good Cemeterian," who restores headstones and had his story publicized through multiple news outlets in 2015.

That's how Schultz, a Kirkwood Community College student, began cleaning headstones.

Schultz and White clean headstones by first spraying them with water. The pair use scrapers to remove the lichen and mold that grows on the headstones and rinse the headstones. They spray the headstones with D/2 Biological Solution, a biodegradable liquid that removes the stains caused by mold, mildew and more. The solution further removes whatever is left on the headstone as they scrub again before they let it sit and rinse it off. Then, they spray the headstones with D/2 one final time.

Their work isn't complete until they stick a new, vivid American flag to the side of the headstone.

Visitors can be certain that when they visit the Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City, the flags lining some of the headstones are from Schultz and White.

White learned of Schultz restoring headstones in the Johnson County area through a Facebook group called the Forgotten Iowa Historical Society.

"I was very moved by the fact that he had felt that strongly about doing this," she said.

So she joined him.

White's father retired as a lieutenant colonel. Her husband is a Vietnam era veteran and remains involved in veterans' activities in Iowa City. Her son is a captain in the U.S. Army, and her nephew is also in the military.

Schultz's father served in the Navy. His great-grandfather served in World War II and the Korean War — a "lifer." His great-grandfather's uncle served in World War I. Schultz's uncle is active-duty military.

Though they share something in common with their many military connections, the duo continue to learn about each other.

"We have great conversations about all kinds of stuff," White said. "We don't have exactly similar political views, but that doesn't make us not be able to sit here and talk and figure out what's going on and talk about current events, past events."

Schultz wants to continue working with headstones. He currently works part-time at Memorials by Michel in Solon, which creates headstones and monuments for those burying a loved one.

"I told them what I was interested in and they were like, 'Oh, we've never had anyone actually willingly want to do this,'" he said.

The interest in Schultz's and White's work ranges from young to old.

Schultz said he's had elderly people walk by inquiring what he's doing and young people saying they've seen something similar on Tik Tok.

One of those interested individuals was Coralville resident Chris Peters.

Peters, a veteran and doctor at Corridor Vein Center, began doing genealogy research a few years ago and learned that some of his relatives lived and died in Johnson County.

He visited their headstones. His wife made a remark about making the headstones look better, as they were barely able to read the writing on Peters' great-grandfather's headstone.

A few months later, Peters came across an article about Schultz and White, and connected with the two.

On July 13, Peters, Schultz and White cleaned up his relative's headstones.

Now, Peters is pursuing this work with three others as part of a rotary group. They are in the early stages of deciding how they'll approach this.

"This project is just to hopefully get (a) service project organized through rotary where we can go out … on a Saturday, pick an area of a cemetery and clean a bunch of headstones," Peters said.

Schultz and White have a GoFundMe to raise $1,000 to pay for cleaning supplies, everything from D-2 and brushes to the flags they place at a veteran's headstone. People are also welcome to join the duo on their restoration adventures.

White's been using her own money to pay for the supplies, wanting to help her young friend in the ways that she can.

"He has this drive that you don't see in so many young people," she said.

Restoration is also an opportunity for remembrance.

For example, Johnny Hendricks, a 12-year-old drummer boy in the Civil War buried at the Oakland Cemetery. Hendricks' grave lies with other Civil War veterans, headstones that both Schultz and White have worked on.

There's also Raymond W. Woods, a 37-year-old World War II veteran. He died in 1959, one year after his father, Walter R. Woods, a World War I veteran. They're also buried in the Oakland Cemetery.

Schultz researches some of the names on the headstones he comes across. He is active on Find a Grave, an online database of cemetery records, and Newspapers.com, an archive of newspaper clippings. He pieces together information on the people who sometimes have left behind nothing more than a name — and older gravestones often have just a first name initial and a last name — and date of death on their headstone.

"I love history, always have, especially ancient history. And anything that's tied to Johnson County, to me, is even more fascinating," White said.

While the work White and Schultz are doing may not be for everyone, part of it comes down to perspective.

It's about how people view cemeteries, Schultz said, adding that some may find them morbid.

"I think it's a great place to learn about the history of humanity and where you live," he said. "The people that lived here before you, they were just like us."

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