The Tacoma Cemetery is deceptively large. With more than 42 acres of land and 38,000 interred residents, the property dates back to the beginning of the city itself. Seeking out the graves of Tacoma’s many veterans and marking them with American flags in honor of Memorial Day therefore was quite the daunting task. Cub Scouts of Pack 42, based in South Tacoma and led by Holly Barcelona, and Pack 148, based in University Place and led by Andrew Homan, were more than willing to take up the challenge on a sunny May 27 afternoon. From orange-scarfed Tiger Cub first graders all the way up to middle school Boy Scouts, there was no shortage of volunteers.
Each year the Tacoma Cemetery invites local branches of the Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other similar organizations to come out and participate in the event, a tradition that has been continuing since before the current cemetery caretaker, Christopher Engh, started working at the property 15 years ago. The Cub Scouts have had pretty regular attendance over the years, so familiar with the practice that their District Commissioner was able to advise the Scouts to bring their own screwdrivers in order to pre-poke the holes for the flags.
Engh, a former Scout himself, was pleased with this year’s turnout, which included dozens of Scouts and was markedly up from last year. For him, the event is not only important for the veterans being honored, but also for the Scouts themselves.
“It passes on some valuable traditions and gives them a connection to the folks who came before them and sacrificed for the freedoms they enjoy,” he said.
The afternoon kicked off with a visit to one such person, John Wilson Sprague, who Engh describes as an “honest to goodness hero.” Sprague served as a general in the American Civil War and won the Medal of Honor for holding off a Confederate attack single handedly, one of only 216 Americans to receive the award. He then served as Tacoma’s first mayor, and got Sprague Avenue named after him as well. Sprague is far from the only veteran to have his final resting place at the Tacoma Cemetery however, and the Scouts soon split off to find and flag as many of their grave markers as possible.
One parent, shepherding around two young Scouts with screwdrivers and flags, said that he felt the practice “...teaches them about respect and duty. The Scout’s code includes helping others and volunteering, and that’s exactly what this is.”
While the younger ones may not have fully understood that sentiment, the older boys certainly did. One Boy Scout explained, “We’re honoring our country’s past veterans.” Another added, “It’s nice to be doing the right thing for thing.”
or Homan, the activity provided more to his pack than just a “daily good turn” and a healthy dose of vitamin D. “It’s a great opportunity for us to teach kids about what Memorial Day is really about. It’s not just barbecues and a long weekend.”
Judging by the American flags dotting one end of the cemetery to the other, the Scouts seemed to get that message loud and clear.