Program to lay wreaths on veteran graves comes to New Paltz

Patty Peltier and Geraldine Moloney are location coordinators for Wreaths across America. They are pictured in the New Paltz Veteran’s Cemetery on Plains Road. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

For Geraldine Moloney, the quest to bring the Wreaths across America project to the New Paltz Rural Cemetery this fall is personal on many levels. Born in Queens to Irish-born Michael and Eileen Moloney, she began visiting the area during her childhood, coming to her grandparents’ summer cottage at the Four Green Fields resort on Mettacahonts Road in Accord. Eventually the family moved there full-time, with her father commuting to work as a New York City cop in the legendarily tough Bronx precinct known as Fort Apache. Geraldine attended Rondout Valley High School, got married, bore a son, moved to Harriman and began a dynamic career on Wall Street as executive assistant to a Citigroup honcho, eventually got divorced.

It’s immediately clear upon meeting Moloney that she possesses the sort of ebullient personality that thrives on constant challenges and interactions with people. But fate pulled her up short in 2012 when, coming home on her motorcycle from a Woodstock Festival reunion in Bethel, an automobile stopped short in front of her. She swerved and the bike flipped over on top of her, causing a traumatic brain injury. A long period of rehabilitation put an end to her high-pressure job, and she relocated to Accord to work in her retired parents’ garden.

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Geraldine became a New Paltz resident following the death of her father in 2018 and began looking for a local volunteer project that she could manage while coping with the lingering effects of her TBI. She had learned about the county program providing burials and grave markers free of charge to local veterans and their spouses in the Ulster County Veterans’ Cemetery, a section of the New Paltz Rural Cemetery set aside for that purpose in 2008. Though a first-generation immigrant, Mike Moloney had served in the US Army during the Vietnam era, and Geraldine made sure that he was interred there.

She began taking an interest in the cemetery and its long history, which dates back to 1861 — a time when towns across America that had previously relied upon family plots and churchyards as burial places suddenly found themselves with hundreds of Civil War dead on their hands. That was when the concept of a large local cemetery, designed like a park for mourners and others to walk and enjoy a tranquil green space, really took hold in this country. The oldest section of the New Paltz Rural Cemetery, nearest the Wallkill River, has a monument to soldiers who died in the Civil War, and a section set aside for members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the original US veterans’ association that predated the founding of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

But many gravesites of veterans are scattered throughout the cemetery, including seven who fought in the Revolutionary War; some have stones so old and weathered that the inscriptions are no longer legible. NPRC didn’t even have an official count of the full number of vets buried there. Inspired by Moloney’s inquiries, Carol Johnson, other staff and volunteers of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library began doing the research to compile these numbers. As his Eagle Scout project, a local Boy Scout named Logan Linares created a database of all 338 of the veterans in the cemetery whose graves are marked with military markers, and then raised money for flagholders for each of those graves and placed them.

The results of Johnson’s research: Of the 7,900+ dead interred in the cemetery, 835 (and growing) are veterans. Not all served during wartime, but of those who did, we now know that the Revolution accounts for seven, the Civil War 71 (29 of them in the GAR Section), the Spanish American War three, World War I 74, World War II 319, Korea 84, Operation Desert Storm one and the Gulf War one. Others from more contemporary conflicts will be added over time.

The research disclosed 278 veterans who do not have bronze markers on their graves — including 20 in the cemetery’s Special Needs section, formerly known as the “paupers’ graves,” according to Johnson — and it troubled Geraldine Moloney that some veterans’ names and service were being forgotten. Then she saw a televised interview with Patricia Dolan Peltier, who was organizing the placement of wreaths at the Orange County Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery for the Wreaths across America program. “My father was going to have it,” Moloney told herself. “They’re going to know you’re there, Dad.”

With help from New Paltz Rural Cemetery’s Lisa Curtis, Moloney tracked down Dolan Peltier and attended a talk she was giving at the Plattekill Historical Society. Before long the two women were meeting with Steve Massie, the recently retired director of the Ulster County Veterans’ Services Agency, seeking approval to inaugurate the program at the cemetery in New Paltz, beginning this December. All parties are now officially on board, and Moloney is out and about raising awareness and donations for the project.

Wreaths across America began in 1992, when the Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine found itself with a surplus of 5,000 balsam fir Christmas wreaths. Owner Morrill Worcester, whose visit as a 12-year-old to Arlington National Cemetery had made a deep impression on him, reached out to Maine senator Olympia Snowe with an offer to donate the extra wreaths to a neglected older section of the cemetery. A local trucker volunteered to transport them to DC, and local veterans’ organizations to hand-tie bows onto the wreaths. The project grew slowly until 2005, when a photo of the stones at Arlington, adorned with snow-covered wreaths, went viral on the Internet, and suddenly cemeteries across the nation wanted to get involved. Nowadays more than 226,000 wreaths are laid each December at Arlington alone, and 1,640 locations now participate annually. For New Paltz, “This is the first year,” Moloney says proudly.

Local veterans’ organizations were quick to support her organizing efforts. Moloney credits Ron and Kathy Mironchik for holding fundraising barbecues this summer at the Brannen-van den Berg Post 8645 Veterans of Foreign Wars in New Paltz. The Tillson American Legion post sponsored a motorcycle run that raised a thousand dollars for the cause, and will provide the Color Guard for the wreath-laying ceremonies on Wreath Day, Saturday, December 14. Local scout troops are getting involved, volunteering to distribute the wreaths. Steve Massie agreed to be the keynote speaker, and efforts are underway to schedule other dignitaries to make remarks on the special day.

With a folding table, a banner donated by PDQ Printing and a stack of flyers, Moloney has been busily making the rounds of fairs, festivals and public events since the summer, as well as seeking sponsorships from local businesses. “It’s about awareness,” she says. “My goal has always been to get a wreath for every vet in the cemetery, but also to let the veterans of Ulster County know the government will bury you with ‘pomp and circumstance’ in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery Veterans’ Cemetery. You are remembered.”

Sponsoring a wreath costs $15, and it may be designated for the grave of a particular veteran or for general distribution in a particular cemetery. There are keyword search links  at https://wreathsacrossamerica.org, but if you want to help out in New Paltz, Moloney recommends using the URL address www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/pages/159335/Overview/?relatedid=159334&modSw=donate, which links back to her as the local organizer. For every two wreaths sponsored this way, the NPRC effort will receive one donated wreath. Donations can also be made by check, mailed to Wreaths Across America, PO Box 249, Columbia Falls, ME  04623, with NYNPRC/NY0270 written on the memo line to ensure that the local effort gets the credit.

“Currently, we have 512 wreaths and we need approximately 300 more. My cutoff is Thanksgiving Day/end of November. At that point, the wreath count will be processed, and this will let headquarters determine how they will ship the wreaths,” says Moloney. “If you cannot buy a wreath, then be a volunteer. Place a wreath down and say the veteran’s name. Teach your children.”

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