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ELM CITY — With a soft-bristle brush, a non-destructive cleaner and an ample helping of elbow grease, Clarence W. Hollowell Jr. is removing the decades of grime that has built up on the headstones of veterans at Cedar Grove Cemetery. For Hollowell, it’s a labor of respect.
“I am thanking them for their service whether they fought in a war or not,” said Hollowell, a U.S. Postal Service carrier and an Army veteran who served from 1977 to 1980.
“I started at the far end of this cemetery and just started walking the line,” Hollowell said. “Every time I saw a veteran headstone, I stopped and cleaned them. I clipped around the edges. I watered it. That’s how I got started. I’m a veteran. I’ve got three brothers that are veterans. My dad’s a veteran. So that’s what got me started.”
Since September, he has spent his spare time cleaning 133 headstones in several cemeteries including 120 just in Elm City.
In many cases, the sandstone, marble and granite headstones are covered with a deep black patina of lichen, bacteria, dirt and moss.
“You preserve and you do no harm,” Hollowell said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. You do no harm to the headstone or the property.”
Hollowell walks under the canopy of century-old magnolia and cedar trees near brilliant white stone monuments that have emerged from his restoration project.
“That one took me from three to five hours. You can’t do it all at once,” Hollowell said as he pointed to a particularly tall monument. “It’s a slow process. It’s not overnight. I was proud of that one. That one came out pretty well.”
The etching on some of the stones is not legible before the cleaning, so there is a moment when names, dates and epitaphs become clear. And from that information comes the story of a veteran.
“There’s a guy named Putney,” Hollowell recalls.
That would be Lt. William Witt Putney, born in Elm City on Sept. 6, 1920.
“He’s at the University of North Carolina. War breaks out. He marries his wife December of ’42. He quits school. He becomes an airplane pilot, and he dies on June 1, 1943, in what the newspaper called an airplane accident,” Hollowell said.
“It’s also his mother’s 40th birthday, so her birthday is never the same every time it comes around. It took them 18 days to find out that he was dead. They got that through people coming to his front door.”
Putney is buried right beside his mother. The stone notes that he died in North Africa on June 1, 1943.
“I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith,” the epitaph reads.
Hollowell said he has always been a student of history.
“It’s pretty impressive when you go home and look these things up,” Hollowell said.
“I keep a log of which ones I have done. Then I go to (Ancestry.com) and look up their census records, where they lived, draft cards and any kind of pertinent information like that. I’m not from Wilson. I have nobody in this cemetery,” said Hollowell, who moved to Wilson for the post office job.
Hollowell is from Belhaven, in Beaufort County, some 80 miles away.
“Whether I’m from Wilson County or not, it’s our history,” Hollowell said.
When he is scrubbing away the dirt, Hollowell has time to think about the service members.
“I also wonder about what their families went through while they were burying them and, of course, the ones who perished in the war,” Hollowell said.
“Those are the ones who I always felt like their mother never changed their rooms. Their parents walk by their rooms and their rooms were still there, and they were expecting them to come out of their room at any time.”
He thinks about those simple stories not mentioned on the headstones.
“It’s what happened in the dash between being born and the day you died, what you filled that with,” Hollowell said. “Those men didn’t want to be in war. They would rather be home under a good blanket and a safe roof. They didn’t want to be in war, but they did what needed to be done.
“I think it’s because they write that check, that they are willing to die for this country,” Hollowell said. “The men on Dec. 6, 1941, they were just sailors, and then the next day they wake up and they are being attacked. You never know. It’s something that they are willing to die for their country whether they like it or not. It’s just to show respect.”
Hollowell leans over a gravestone for John E. Moore, a Civil War soldier.
He is almost finished with cleaning the stone. Next to it, the marker for his son, a more recent stone, is almost black with grime.
“You couldn’t read the letters at all. Any of this you couldn’t read,” Hollowell points out. “You take a toothbrush and get in all the grooves. This will take months, because it is so bad.
“Then I read it and it gives you that satisfaction. It really does. That’s when I know it’s done right, when you can read the letters.”