JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Honoring The Humility Of A Prairie Cemetery

And so the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery will remain dark at night. North Dakota’s adjutant general, David Sprynczynatyk, whose command includes the cemetery, made his decision at the end of a week of input from the public on the efficacy of a well-intentioned but poorly thought-out proposal to light the cemetery at night.

Thank you to those who called the general and urged him to veto the project. He heard you. And he responded. That’s the way it is supposed to work.

Thank you, as well, to three good men — Dave MacIver, Gene Mastel and Bernie Meier — who dedicated a bit of their lives to not just propose an idea that seemed good to them, but to follow through on it, to do the legwork required to make a project of this magnitude succeed, if it was meant to be. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.

It was one of those ideas that, at first blush, seemed good. Yes, of course, putting lights around the perimeter of the military cemetery on the hillside south of Mandan would certainly look pretty cool to those driving by on Highway 1806 at night. But looking cool and being appropriate to the place being lit were two different things. As my wife said in remarks at last Monday’s public meeting, “there is nothing wrong with cemeteries being dark at night.” Most callers to the general’s office this week not only agreed with that, but actually preferred it.

We drove to the cemetery Friday night, not long after Mother Nature had blanketed the prairie with pure white snow. At the gate, we were greeted with muted spotlights on the entrance sign. We agreed it might be OK to light the entrance a bit more for cars driving by on the highway. Then we sat in the still of a North Dakota winter evening, at the top of the ellipse, the only light visible from our vantage point being the spotlights on the flag display. It was there we said our quiet thanks to the general for his wise decision.

It was in stark contrast to the amazing scene I encountered in the same spot just 12 hours later, when I arrived for the annual “Wreaths Across America” ceremony, as hundreds, maybe as many as a thousand, volunteers, many with loved ones buried there as I have, braved the snow and chilly prairie wind to place Christmas wreaths beside more than 5,000 headstones at North Dakota Veterans Cemetery Saturday.

I’ve been to each of these ceremonies since they started a few years ago, and I have never seen a crowd this big, with every cemetery parking spot full and cars parked alongside Highway 1806 almost all the way down to the gate of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. It is a wonderful Christmas tradition, and I am pleased that so many North Dakotans choose to participate in it each year.

This year, I think, there was some sense of relief that controversy had been avoided by the wise decision of Gen. Sprynczynatyk on the very eve of that ceremony. And by the timing of that decision. You don’t get to be a general without having some sense of the need for timely decisions, and the impact that making those decisions, or a delay in making them, can have on events unfolding in the natural course of things, such as this ceremony.

In an earlier post, I referred to “our state’s war heroes” being buried at our State Veterans Cemetery. Let me be clear, not everyone buried there fought and died in uniform. Most served when their country called, then came home and joined the American Legion and VFW, served on park boards and school boards, paid their taxes, raised their families and lived full lives here in North Dakota before choosing our Veterans Cemetery as their final resting place.

And so our State Cemetery pays tribute not just to veterans, but to North Dakota, and the good life this prairie state provided to those who chose to make their homes here after their service to our country.

My reason for attending the annual Wreaths Across America ceremony.
My reason for attending the annual Wreaths Across America ceremony.

Even in all its splendid symmetry across a Missouri River valley hillside, as you walk the pathway from the entrance at the bottom of the hill to the flag display at the top, as I did Saturday when I was there to place a wreath on the grave of my wife, Rita, who waits there for me, the place exudes a quiet humility in its absence of vertical interruption of the skyline, befitting this prairie landscape that surrounds us. Remember, you are dust …

Yes, the general made the right decision, and there’s additional significance in its timing, coming as it did on the eve of his retirement, as he passes command of the North Dakota National Guard to his successor.

In brief remarks at Saturday’s wreath ceremony, he noted that this was his last ceremony as adjutant general, but that he planned to return there for many more of these ceremonies in retirement.

And when he does, he will see the place almost exactly as he saw it this year, and last year, and the years before that. And I know he will think about that decision, one of the last, likely, of his command assignment. And one of his most significant.

Thank you, Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, for your service to your state and your country, and for your wise counsel. Enjoy your retirement. You’ve earned it.

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