Memorial Day front page

I was asked to design an inside page to commemorate Memorial Day, which is an important day anywhere, but especially here in Hampton Roads, with our high number of military families. Denis Finley, the editor, wanted to show them our appreciation and respect. When he saw my proposal, a gravestone rubbing of a local Medal of Honor recipient, he wanted to move it to the front page because he thought it was eloquent and still worked as a universal acknowledgment.

I did some research and discovered the awe inspiring story of Lt. Sargent, a young man who grew up in Hampton, went off to Vietnam and sacrificed his life in order to save his fellow soldiers.

I asked the people at Hampton National Cemetery if I could make a rubbing of his stone and was informed that permission must first be granted by the family. Understandable.

The library research team at the paper began working on tracking down Lt. Sargent’s wife, who according to records, still lived in Hampton. Weeks went by without success. Efforts to contact her were met with brick wall after brick wall. She did not want to be contacted.

The library discovered that there was a son, now in his forties, also living in Hampton. After several days, they were able to get his cell phone number and I called him immediately. Time was running out.

I introduced myself to him, told him how amazing his dad was and what we wanted to do to honor him, and all U.S. military heroes, walking him through the design of the page, the rubbing, the photo, his citation, etc. and he was very wary about it. He said he wanted to think it over. He needed to talk to his family and get back to me. He didn’t call me back. We talked a couple of times on the phone over the next week. He didn’t trust the press. I think we may have gotten something wrong in an article long in the past. His family argued against granting permission. Eventually, though, he told me, “Look, Sam, you sound like a nice guy. I trust you. Go ahead and do this. I think it’ll be a good thing.”

I returned to the cemetery, and walked to a shady spot under a tree, where Sargent was buried. I taped the paper to his headstone and began rubbing from the top and moved slowly downward, until I found myself lying on my stomach atop his grave. The grass was damp with dew and it smelled good. I was filled with emotion.

On the afternoon the paper was published, I got a call from the son, who told me, “Sam, I walked into the 7-11 this morning to get the paper. I stood back and watched as other customers came in, walked toward the news stand and stopped in their tracks when they saw it. It’s wonderful. Thank you so much.”

I mailed the rubbing to him and never heard back.