Dale Reich frequents cemeteries, but the graves he visits are those of people he has never met.
Instead of flowers, he brings a bucket, scrub brush and bottle of Dawn dish soap.
The 72-year-old Vietnam veteran has made it his mission in retirement to clean the headstones of veterans across Jefferson County and beyond. He has surpassed the 1,150 mark and recently completed nearly 200 at Fort Atkinson’s Evergreen Cemetery.
“I love these guys, the veterans here, and the wives who suffered along with them when they got back home again—or maybe suffered because they didn’t get back home again,” Reich said as he washed the inscription of Edward G. Hausen, a veteran of the Spanish-American War.
“They deserve a clean headstone as much as the guy that served. Mrs. Jones gets one just like Capt. Jones gets one.”
It all started a few years ago when the Watertown resident visited Oconomowoc to pay his respects to his grandfather, Reinhold, who was blinded by mustard gas during World War I.
Placing flowers on the grave at Summit Cemetery, Reich noticed how dirty the headstone had become. He called Archie Monuments in Watertown to ask the best way to clean it.
“And the nice lady said, ‘Just get some Dawn detergent and a soft, sturdy brush and get to work, and that’ll do it.’
“And she was right,” he said. “So I did my grandfather’s grave and my grandmother’s grave. Then I looked around and saw other veterans’ gravestones that were dirty, and I thought, ‘You know, they deserve the same respect Grandpa and Grandma get. So I’m going to get to work.’”
And get to work he did. After finishing at Summit, he moved on to Oconomowoc’s La Belle and St. Jerome cemeteries.
His efforts caught the attention of then-state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, who presented him with a legislative citation at the state Capitol.
“Well, I thought, that’s cool. But I’ve got to quit there because I have done my thing,” Reich recalled thinking. “Then I thought, ‘Gotcha.’ I was hooked on cleaning gravestones.
“I just couldn’t sleep knowing that there are dirty gravestones of veterans in this area.”
So he moved on to Watertown’s Oak Hill and Lutheran cemeteries. Living right across from Oak Hill, Reich cleaned 300 headstones there.
After Watertown, Reich washed 25 markers at Greenwood Cemetery in Jefferson. In July, he logged 150 at Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Atkinson despite soaring temperatures.
“I can do about 10 graves an hour if I hustle,” he said. “It depends on the status of the grave. Some are very, very bad, and some are not too bad. They just need to be scraped, cleaned and kind of polished a little. Some of them have been cleaned before, but it’s been years, while some were power-washed but have fallen back into disarray.”
Bird droppings, black walnuts, grass clippings, pine sap and dirt create what Reich calls a “little terrarium.” Green lichens also take up residence in the hollows of the engraved letters and numbers.
They are no match for Reich.
Even though Evergreen Cemetery covers 25 acres, cleaning headstones there was easier than at other cemeteries because Evergreen has water spigots throughout the grounds. Reich’s 5-gallon bucket goes dry after only two gravestones, so he gets a workout toting it from spigot to grave and back.
Reich noted that he only cleans the gravestones that are dirty. Occasionally, he misses one because it is not marked with a flag-holder or service inscription.
He estimates that the oldest headstone he has cleaned was that of a veteran of the War of 1812. The newest belong to those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Sometimes I do extra ones, too, because I’ll see they have a child,” he said. “... Or maybe it’ll be the mother or father of a veteran, and they’re next door. I am trying to be respectful with them, as well.”
If this is about anything, it is about respect.
After cleaning each headstone, Reich walks to the foot of the grave, turns, stands at attention and offers a funeral salute.
“We forget how much of a sacrifice military people make for us, and it isn’t just those who die or are wounded. … Nobody comes back from Vietnam, for example, the same as when they went.”
He added: “The reason why I do this is respect. Many of these guys made greater sacrifices than me, and I recognize that, and I appreciate it. Every community should show their respect for these veterans and their allies by restoring their markers to a reasonable level of cleanliness.”
He wears a T-shirt he designed to honor his father, Fred Reich, who spent three years with the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II. The back reads, “Thank you, veterans.”
Reich also sees another benefit to his hobby: He is uncovering the past.
“I’m a history teacher, right? So this is a historical museum,” he said. “And it provides historical information about real life. People who may have lived next door to your family who went off to war and did extraordinary things.
“Out here is a hell of a book. And so I help to uncover information that is hidden, just like a teacher would teach her students how to understand history.”
He has made a card catalog of sorts.
“I have all 1,014 men and women on my computer back home as proof of what I’ve done,” Reich said, adding, “not for anybody else because nobody knows what I did. This isn’t going to be in the Guinness Book of Records.”
Reich will move to Adams-Friendship in September, but he plans to finish Evergreen and then hit two more cemeteries before he leaves.
And perhaps, after getting settled in, he will tend some graves around Adams-Frienship, as well.
“It depends,” he said. “This takes time and energy, but it’s not expensive. It’s practically nothing but a little detergent and a little bit of gas.
“Do you want to hear the irony?” Reich asked. “I’m going to be cremated. I will not have a marker. Nobody can ever clean up my marker because there won’t be one for me.”
But that’s OK, he said, because there are countless more veterans in need of care.
“Anybody could do what I’m doing,” Reich said. “It’s just that I chose to do it. Yeah, there’s nothing special about me. I’m just the guy that thinks you ought to do something for others while you can.”