Hundreds turned out Saturday for the dedication of the new $320,000 Veterans Memorial at the top of Pioneer Cemetery.
The 2-1/2-hour ceremony included patriotic music played by the Pleasanton Community Concert Band, brief welcoming remarks by Mayor Jerry Thorne and three major speeches. With limited parking at the cemetery, most attending the ceremony lined up starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Pleasanton Senior enter for shuttle rides to the cemetery, which then returned them after the ceremony concluded with final remarks well after noon.
The main speaker and key organizer of Saturday’s event was Doug Miller, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam who retired I 1989 as a major in the Army Reserve. He was followed by Jim McGuirk, who served three deployments in Iraq as an Army sergeant. The final speaker was Command Sergeant Major Blaine J. Huston from Camp Parks in Dublin.
The dedication marked the completion of a two-year project that has been a partnership between the city of Pleasanton and the city's two veterans’ organizations, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6298 and American Legion Post 237.
"This memorial will serve to honor not only our fallen, but all the men and women who serve our country," City Manager Nelson Fialho said. "We couldn't have done this without the phenomenal support of our community and veterans groups."
The memorial overlooks the graves of more than 500 veterans buried at Pioneer and the adjoining St. Augustine Catholic cemeteries, located at 5780 Sunol Blvd. At least two of these veterans served during the Civil War.
Plaques placed around the base of the monument honor by name 21 Pleasanton-area residents killed in action in wars since World War II. They include Army Sgt. Joseph D. Peters, the first Pleasanton soldier killed in World War II during D-Day exercises on June 8, 1944. Peters Avenue in downtown Pleasanton was named for him.
The most recent wartime fatality was Army Spc. Jameson Lindskog, who died in action in Afghanistan on March 29, 2011.
The memorial design features a life-size bronze statue of a World War II Marine Corps soldier, kneeling to honor his fallen comrades and facing the cemetery's entrance. The statue was designed and built by Colorado artist and Vietnam War veteran Ron Petit.
Long-awaited improvements to Pleasanton's city-owned Pioneer Cemetery, including a veterans’ memorial, have been pursued for years by Pleasanton veterans and others who wanted to make the local burial grounds their final resting place.
Those improvements became more likely after the 120-year-old cemetery was purchased, albeit reluctantly, by the city from the International Order of Oddfellows in 2007.
At the time, some members of the council were openly squeamish about the purchase because of the poor condition the cemetery was in. Graves and headstones dating back into the 1800s were sold in a one-time payment plan with no perpetual care provisions as modern-day cemeteries have. In many instances, families of those buried at Pioneer have themselves died or moved away.
Since then, the Pleasanton Parks and Community Services Department and the Rotary Club of Pleasanton invested time and money to cart away litter, repair broken benches and pavement and spruce up the landscape.
Two years ago, the Pleasanton City Council approved a plan to renovate the cemetery and designated a location for a future memorial to Pleasanton area veterans. Within a month, the VFW and American Legion posts formed a committee to design, fund and build a memorial.
In August 2015, the committee began seeking approval for the design and site, and three months later the City Council unanimously approved the project. The Pleasanton Veterans Memorial Committee began fundraising on Nov. 4, 2015.
Two local families pledged and later donated a total of $140,000. Arts contributors Gary and Nancy Harrington pledged $40,000 in matching funds if the memorial to veterans was built during the design phase, and Bob and Marilyn Weiss pledged $50,000 and then made an additional pledge of $50,000 in matching funds. These two families have been designated as "Early Visionaries" for their significant role in the project.
More than 270 separate donations were received from local individuals, local businesses and community service organizations. More than 60 of these donations were for $1,000 or more.
But for people like Frank Capella and Doug Miller, who serve on a volunteer cemetery group they formed, much more needs to be done. Some tombstones are still tilting, many can't be read and a narrow road around the cemetery, located off Sunol Boulevard, is difficult to maneuver, especially by older drivers who go there to visit a loved one's grave.
Along with the Veterans Memorial now being dedicated, Kathleen Yurchak, assistant director of operations services, also has received the council's approval to form a Cemetery Master Plan Oversight Committee and to spend up to $50,000 in consulting fees to consider improvements. These may include an irrigation system that the cemetery never had, better landscaping and ongoing maintenance requirements.
Yurchak and others on the city staff said there are no plans to turn Pioneer into a pristine landscaped cemetery found in other locations, but they agreed that some improvements would help.
Among other improvements under consideration are those suggested by the Harringtons. In their vision of the cemetery, traffic on Sunol Boulevard would be greeted with a creative sign inviting them to visit historic Pioneer Cemetery. Once inside the gates, they would be directed to a staging area where the cemetery's history, the names of early Pleasanton settlers and the more than 500 veterans buried there would be listed with a locator map to their graves. All through the cemetery, markers would provide more historic details.
Clearly, though, one of the first challenges for Yurchak and her committee will be to count the graves. She told the council that no one knows how many are buried at Pioneer beyond the 500 that are military veterans.