KCs give time, pay respect at Iowa Veterans Cemetery

November 9, 2021

A member of the Knights of Columbus mowing the grass

After setting out to create a patriotic arm of service in 2008, the St. Francis Knights of Columbus chapter has since donated thousands of hours every year mowing and trimming Iowa Veterans Cemetery.

Members feel honored and fulfilled to be of service and pay their respects. But they are also saving the state a great deal of money.

“It’s unbelievable the amount of money the knights are saving [the state]…,” said Keith Blum, cemetery superintendent.

It’s almost a quarter of a million dollars to be exact, said Mark Lyle, a St. Francis Knight.

“The average is $28.54 per hour, and you start running through the hours [times ten year],” said Lyle.

The volunteers are great guys, added Blum, most of whom are veterans. The average volunteer age is about 65 or 70 years old since the younger guys are still working.

“If I need them out there two times a week to mow, they would be there,” Blum said.

The St. Francis crew runs a pretty tight ship, taking turns riding mowers or walking with trimmers or push mowers.

“It takes all the pressure off the employees to mow,” Lyle continued. “We mow all the areas, go around the headstones.”

The volunteers maintain approximately 30 acres. The work is enjoyable and also rewarding.

“Many times you get comments from people visiting the graves, and they say, ‘Boy, the grounds look really nice,’” Lyle said. “And that’s a great shot in the arm.”

Before plotting their day, Lyle always checks on where the funerals will be located to avoid disrupting the solemn occasion.

“If there’s a service and I’m on a big mower, we’ll just park our mowers and wait [out of respect for the deceased and their loved ones],” Lyle said. “Twice I’ve had veterans tell me war stories that they’ve probably never told their families.”

The Knights also help park cars when there’s an extremely large funeral.

About 40 Knights turn out every year for the National Wreaths Across America Day, which is always held the last Saturday before Christmas.

On this day, wreath­-laying ceremonies occur at more than 2,500 locations across the United States, at sea and abroad at the same time, with the mission of remembering, honoring and teaching.

Though last year’s event was smaller because of COVID-19, in 2019 the Knights parked cars and handed out 1,500 wreaths from flatbeds dispersed throughout the cemetery. Nearly 6,000 people were in attendance. The Knights also drove golf carts around, picking up infirmed or those unable to walk long distances.

Fellow Knights Tom Sepic and Vern Heithoff founded the patriotic arm of service at St. Francis. They have strong feelings about their work.

“We had a photographer [who is a member of the Knights] out there for the wreath laying,” said Sepic. “On his way back after we put all the wreaths out a lady went up to him and gave him a big hug and thanked him very much for putting a wreath on the grave of the loved one. I think a good share of the Knights who work on the Wreaths Across America drove home feeling very fulfilled by what they did…We’ve gotten more thanks and looks of appreciation than you can imagine.”

Several of the volunteers have been nominated by Blum for the Governor’s Volunteer Award.

                “I thought they should have it every year because that’s just how much I appreciate those people,” Blum said. “The Knights are unbelievable.”

                Learn more about the Iowa Veterans Cemetery at https://va.iowa.gov/cemetery.