(Photo by Ben Thacker)

ALR chapter leaves a lasting legacy

Kevin Oliver first got involved with The American Legion when he was “8 or 7", as a member of Sackets Harbor Post 1757’s Sons of The American Legion squadron in New York.

Now 52, Oliver has left the state but hasn’t left the family. He has, however, helped create a lasting legacy in his former community.

Oliver recently raised $6,000 to finish up a much-needed expansion to a local veterans cemetery and establish a scholarship in his mother’s name. A member of The American Legion Riders, Oliver chose a less-motorized approach, riding a 40-year-old 10-speed bike 171 miles from Fort Myers Beach to Melbourne Beach in Florida, where he now resides.

Oliver said something about Sackets Harbor Military Cemetery always had upset him. “I’d always go down to the cemetery to pay my respects, and it bothered me personally – and it did a few other people – that the cemetery was so small and so old that spouses couldn’t be buried with their husbands like at Arlington (National Cemetery),” he said. “So what would happen … veterans weren’t being buried there because they had to choose being buried in the military cemetery or right across the street in the regular cemetery with their spouse.”

In 2016, when the cemetery was down to less than 40 plots, Oliver, ALR Chapter 1757 Director Thomas Spencer and other members of the Riders decided it was time to step in. The group came up with a proposal to almost triple the size of the cemetery, taking advantage of the vacant land behind the cemetery.

Meetings with both the mayor and cemetery board were successful in getting the project going. A group of nine or so Legion Riders took care of clearing away the vacant land, but the project’s funding that had been donated by community members began to run out.

“We had it to where the cemetery was almost usable,” Oliver said. “I knew that this coming summer we would be able to finish the project but we would be short on funds.”

A concert helped raised $3,000-$4,000 that was used to put in roads, gravel, trees and shrubs. But when that ran out, more was needed to finish the project. Oliver, who had since moved to Florida but still spends his summers in Sackets Harbor, was riding his bicycle one day when he came up with the idea to do a fundraising ride.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have an American Legion Rider who’s not a professional cyclist ride his bicycle across the state of Florida?’” he said. “That’s where I came up with the idea.”

Using social media, as well as sending out letters and videos, to get the word out about the 4-Them Ride, Oliver began receiving pledges reaching as high as $1,000. Oliver originally had hoped to raise $1,500 but beat that goal by 300 percent when he finished the two-day ride April 29.

The $6,000 will allow the Riders to finish the roads in the cemetery and start putting shrubs along the fence lines, as well as getting the final surveying finished. There also was enough left over for Oliver to establish a $500 scholarship in the name of his mother, who he said “was sort of the village mom. She helped wayward kids. If a veteran didn’t have a ride to the hospital for an appointment, my mom would go back him up."

The MaryAnn Oliver Community Service Scholarship is open not only to four-year college students, but also students heading to a trade school or those high-school graduates entering the military. It is based on community service, not grades.

MaryAnn died in 2017 after serving as Unit 1757’s Auxiliary president and in various other capacities within the unit. Oliver’s father, former Post 1757 member Wilfred Oliver, served in the Navy in World War II, and then in the Air Force in both the Korean and Vietnam wars before passing away in 1995. Oliver said he remembers “going to all the functions like the Memorial Day parades, Armed Forces (Day) parade with my mom and dad. And my mom and dad were always at the Legion. My mother was huge on doing dinners. She would be the chairperson for dinners that had 150 people, 250 people. I was the guy that helped serve, washing dishes when I was 10 years old.

“And when I was involved with the Sons at a young age, I was the one marching behind all the Legionnaires and Auxiliary in the parades.”

Both of Oliver’s parents are buried in Military Cemetery – his father formerly in the old section and his mother in the new area. But Wilfred has since been moved to the new section to be next to his wife.

“This project quickly took on a life of its own,” Oliver said. “This means a huge amount to me. I’m humbled that people come up to me all the time when I’m back in Sackets Harbor and shake my hand or Tom Spencer’s. We’ll be down there working … and people walking through the original part of the cemetery will come up to us … and say, ‘Hey, we read about this’ or ‘we heard about this’ and pull $20 out of their pocket (to donate). It really humbles us to think that there’s that much impact.”

For videos and photos of Oliver’s ride, click here.