Race Promotes Expanding Cemetery Borders

By Kate Ward

Sunday, November 8, 2009


A race across town brought Fayetteville National Cemetery supporters a step closer to expanding property borders on Saturday.

Hosted by the Regional National Cemetery Improvement Corp. the Veteran’s Memorial 5K race marked the group’s first official fundraiser aimed at purchasing the property along Hill Street to expand the cemetery’s existing acreage.

“We’ve been raising funds for a long time through donations from individuals and various veteran organizations,” said Wesley Stites, race coordinator. “This is a small organization and we don’t have that many people involved. We’d like to attract more attention to our cause and create more expansive goals.”

The group was organized in 1984 to aid in the expansion and improvement of the Fayetteville National Cemetery. The site was established after the Civil War in 1867 as the final resting place for Union soldiers killed in nearby battles. During the past five years, the nonprofit group has aided in expanding the property by 120 percent.

“We’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Stites said. “We’re in this for the long run. No matter how successful you are, there’s always going to be a need for more land. The World War II generation is passing away in enormous numbers. If we don’t stay ahead of things, the cemetery would close in, perhaps, a dozen years. It’s up to us to keep it open.”

Now administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Stites said the cemetery nearly closed in the 1980s, when just a handful of burial sites remained and no federal funding was available. During the past 25 years, the group has purchased houses and lots bordering the site, cleared the land and deeded the property to the federal government to expand the cemetery.

“There are a lot of people who don’t appreciate the fact that Fayetteville is really blessed to have a national cemetery,” Stites said. “There are 11 states that don’t even have one. Arkansas is fortunate enough to have three, two of which are still open. If the cemetery closes, the VA will not be opening a new one near Fayetteville in anyone’s lifetime.”

While there was previous controversy surrounding the purchase of the Washington County Livestock Auction Barn owned by Billy Joe Bartholomew, Stites said the site is too costly for the group to purchase.

“We would love to be able to buy the sale barn and turn that land over to the cemetery, but unless a major donor comes forward, it’s just not realistic,” he said. “Mr. Bartholomew has been a longtime supporter of the cemetery and he even allowed us to start the race on his property.”

Saturday’s race attracted more than 100 area residents. The event started at the national cemetery, located on Government Street in south Fayetteville, traveled to Wilson Park and looped back around to the starting line.

Rogers resident Frank Arellano, 43, took first place, finishing in just 17 minutes and 44 seconds.

“I had the option of running in a promotional race in Bella Vista, but this was a more important cause to me,” he said. “My stepdad is a veteran and I really respect all those people who risk their lives for our country and for our communities.”

Though Tontitown resident Janet Taylor sat out for this year’s run, she played an integral role behind the scenes in coordinating the event.

“I’m an Army veteran and I work at the VA,” she said. “Whenever there’s an event that supports veterans, I try to be there. I also helped organize a veterans run for the VA in July and I wanted to share some of the tips I learned for this group’s first fundraiser.”

Stites said he was satisfied with the outcome of the race, adding that it likely raised more than a couple thousand dollars.

“There’s a tremendous amount of history in this cemetery,” he said. “It houses those who’ve been killed in every conflict, including Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t have any friends or family buried here and I’m not a veteran, but I think it’s important enough to spend the time and money to make sure it stays open. It’s our way of saying ‘we respect the sacrifices you’ve made for us.’”

For more information about the group or to make a donation, go to RNCIC.com.