Some families celebrate Memorial Day weekend with a cookout.

Others may take in a parade.

Then there’s the progeny of Henry Rivard.

“I want these flags standing straight,” Ron Rivard, 82, told the two dozen people, just about all of them relatives, gathered Saturday morning in the parking lot of the Southern Maine Memorial Veterans Cemetery in Springvale.

Behind Ron on the bed of his pickup sat bundles upon bundles of small American flags. Next to them rested a pile of “pokers,” simple tools designed to make a perfectly vertical hole exactly 16 inches out from the left-front corner of each headstone.

Holding up a poker, Ron instructed, “When you have it in there, do not wiggle it around because you make the hole bigger and the flag won’t be straight.”

Jerry Rivard, 92, Ron’s older brother, couldn’t resist.

“Do you have any levels that we can use?” he asked, tongue planted firmly in cheek, while the rest of the clan erupted in laughter.

Deadpanned Ron, “You don’t know how to read one, so …”

More laughter.

And with that, the family got to work. They had an entire cemetery to honor.

In a 2011 report titled “The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections,” the Pew Research Center found that American families with a direct connection to the military are at their fewest since the peacetime era between World Wars I and II.

The study also showed that veterans tend to beget more veterans and that the more tethered a family is to the military, the more likely they are to go out of their way to help – or honor – others in uniform.

This is not news to the Rivard clan.

Born on March 18, 1892, Henry Rivard served in the Navy during World War I. He came home to Maine after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, bought a 100-acre farm in Springvale and, along with his wife, Laura, raised 13 children – seven boys and six girls.

All seven boys went on to join the military. Twenty more of their offspring did the same.

None died while serving, although oldest brother Don was twice wounded and twice taken prisoner during World War II. An Army infantryman, he and several comrades finally managed to escape and hid high up in a cherry tree while the Germans searched for them below.

“The Germans never looked up,” Ron said. “They were up there for three days in the tree. And when they saw that the Germans weren’t coming back, they climbed back down and hiked 10 miles to Rome.”

Ron served in the Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga during the Korean War and was spared the horrors of combat – most of his tour was spent in the Mediterranean.

Now, more than half a century later, he’s made it his late-in-life mission to honor veterans – from all branches, from all eras, for as long as he can be of service.

“I’m 82, going on 40,” Ron quipped. “When I get old, I’ll probably join the Y and play shuffleboard. But until then, I’m going to be out here working.”

In his hometown of Shapleigh, Ron and two younger local veterans – Dick Langlais and Curtis Mills – mow, weed-whack and otherwise care for the veterans’ plots across 59 private cemeteries throughout the community. Some sit as far as a half-mile from the nearest road.

One grave dates all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Another holds Earlsworth Pillsbury, who fought in the Civil War and soon will be honored with a granite headstone now in the back of Ron’s truck – one of three markers awaiting placement and dedication.

“The pastor of the Baptist church helps me with the genealogy,’ Ron said. “He does the brain work and I do the bull work.”

But for all Ron’s labors, it doesn’t get any better than the last weekend in May.

Since its opening in 2010, the Southern Maine Memorial Veterans Cemetery has seen 935 interments. As the World War II, Korean and now the Vietnam veterans reach their final years, it’s not unusual for the cemetery to host five burials in a single day.

That’s a lot of flags. But Ron, who serves as secretary of the all-volunteer cemetery association, has a lot of boots on the ground.

“We’ve made it a family affair,” said Theresa Ouellette, 90, Ron’s older sister, as she planted flags alongside her niece, Cecile Frye.

Theresa’s two sons were in the Air Force. Cecile’s father (Theresa’s brother-in-law) was in the Army, her younger brother was in the Air Force and his son chose the Marines.

What draws them here when they could be out ringing in the summer?

“It’s a time to get together,” Theresa replied. “And to thank God that all our family came back.”

Marianne Theriault, 85, another sister, paused between flag bundles just long enough to share another incentive.

“We keep busy,” Marianne said, her smile as bright as the morning sun. “We don’t have time to die!”

But time does march onward. As Henry Rivard’s children and great-grandchildren darted from gravesite to gravesite fulfilling the family legacy, Betty Rivard stood by herself off in the distance for several moments, staring at one plot in particular.

There lay her late husband, Urbain, Henry’s fourth son. He served on a Navy destroyer during World War II and passed away a year ago in April.

“It’s hard. It’s been a long year,” said Betty, who met her husband while he was working in the Dominican Republic. “He was a good person – and this is an unbelievable family. Such wonderful people.”

Henry’s sixth son, Richard, who served in the post-World War II Army, is also gone.

As is second-oldest brother Paul, a Seabee in the South Pacific during the war. A heart attack took him in 2011 while he cleared brush from Soldiers and Sailors Park across the street from his home in Sanford.

In addition to Ron, that leaves brothers Louis, another Army vet, and Jerry, who rode as a bombardier on a Navy seaplane in the South Pacific. He remains with his wife, Theresa, on the old family farm, where they still grow and sell fruits and vegetables.

“I was 2 when my father bought it and I’ve been there ever since,” Jerry said with palpable pride. “Ninety years …”

Atop the nearby hill, not far from the entrance to the cemetery, a stone memorial to Henry Rivard awaited its flag.

The large slab notes that Henry left this world on Nov. 11, 1958 – 40 years to the day after the end of World War I. Now known as Veterans Day.

“And he died at 11 a.m.,” said Ron, the hour the armistice took effect.

Ever the organizer, Ron had one more instruction for his small army of flag planters.

“For you who are looking ahead to next year, mark your calendar,” he said. “May 26, 2018, at 9 a.m., we’ll be planting the graves again.”

Jerry, now the family elder, couldn’t let such an order go unchallenged.

“And what if we’re not here?” he called out to more laughter.

His kid brother didn’t miss a beat.

“If you’re not here,” Ron promised, “we’ll be sure to flag your grave.”

Correction: This story was updated at 10:37 a.m. on May 28 to correct the spelling of Cecile Frye’s name.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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