It’s truly an honor

Some folks would call what John Hunter does this time each year a major undertaking and a huge amount of stress.

But for the administrator at Six Oaks Cemetery on the island, the goal of filling every veteran’s grave with a wreath is an honor.

“These veterans and the veteran families have given so much and asked so little,” Hunter said. “Getting to do this is a blessing in my life.”

Hunter and his army of volunteers are collecting donated wreaths as part of the national Wreaths Across America program. More than 3,500 locations in the U.S. and worldwide will set up the wreaths at cemeteries and community centers at 12 p.m. on Dec. 17.

“It’s just an amazing, coordinated effort and we are so proud to be just a small part of it,” Hunter said.

WAA began 26 years ago when Morrill and Karen Worcester were looking to donate excess wreaths from their tree farm in Columbia Falls, Maine. That one gesture and the event it led to at Arlington National Cemetery spawned a non-profit organization and movement with the goal of placing a wreath on every U.S. veteran’s grave during the holidays.

For Hunter, the event is a way to honor his father, a career Army officer and Korean War veteran. 

“Dad died when I was just 5 years old, but our entire family is built around service. My three uncles, his brothers, all served in the Army,” he said. “My Dad served all over the world, and I think of what it means for me to see that wreath on his grave. It’s truly an honor to witness other families seeing their wreaths.”

Hunter’s journey to Six Oaks began 29 years ago when the Alabama native took a job as administrative assistant to Lowcountry legend Charles Fraser. A few months into the gig, Fraser came to his office and asked him to take over administration of Six Oaks. 

“I never thought I’d be a cemetery administrator. But 26 years later it’s been a wonderful life being able to give folks closure and to celebrate the life behind those who die,” Hunter said.

This is the 13th year that Hunter is leading the WAA effort at Six Oaks. 

“I just remember when Wreaths Across America first called,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t care if I have to pay for them all myself, we will make this happen.’ ”

Hunter delivered on his promise without having to foot the bill. Hundreds of area families stepped up to buy a wreath that first year and the effort has grown each year.

His crew of volunteers, many themselves family members of veterans, has close to 1,100 wreaths for the veterans interred at the cemetery. 

“It’s quite a sight to see. Between all of us, we get all the wreaths on floral racks at veteran sites in just under 10 minutes,” Hunter said. “We have it down to an art at this point. This whole operation, to see the truckers donating time around the country to deliver the wreaths, to see all the folks that give here in the Lowcountry, it’s truly inspiring. The people here never cease to amaze me.”

Six Oaks is one of two cemetery sites in Beaufort County to participate in the event. Beaufort National Cemetery has collected more than 7,500 wreaths as of press time on way to a goal of 25,000 wreaths. A contingent of Sun City veterans had collected close to 4,000 wreaths before Thanksgiving — more than 12 times their goal for this year.

Hunter is committed to several memorial events throughout the year. His volunteers also place flags on the vets’ graves a week ahead of Memorial Day, July 4th, Patriots Day and Veterans Day. 

“You can never do enough to honor these heroes,” Hunter said. “I think folks want to be part of something bigger than themselves and they prove it here every year.”

The wreaths will be on display at Six Oaks Cemetery for a month after the Dec. 17 ceremony.