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Tampa Bay woodworkers come together give veterans proper burials

Finished urns sit on a tabletop in Vernon Blackadar’s wood shop behind his Lithia home. Bruce Woody, Blackadar and Tom Jones work on more urns in the background.
Published Aug. 26, 2012

Tom Jones was disturbed.

As he sat in his Land O'Lakes home this spring, he listened to reports of a Florida veteran who was buried in a shallow grave inside a cardboard box.

"It felt so disgraceful," said Jones, a 64-year-old Army veteran.

He took it upon himself to ensure that no veteran would ever again be buried in such a manner.

The amateur woodworker started crafting wooden urns.

The first two were simple, but well-made. He took them to his Tampa woodcrafting club, of which he is vice president, and to a club in St. Petersburg to enlist support.

Club members loved the idea.

Club members have now made 17 boxes. Jones hopes it is just the beginning.

"It's our hope that we'll get woodworking clubs around the country to do this," he said.

• • •

Maintenance workers discovered Lawrence Davis Jr.'s remains earlier this year after readjusting a headstone at the Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell.

News spread across the state and country, sparking outrage, the latest in a string of improper veteran burials.

Davis, a World War II veteran from Avon Park, was 83 when he was reported missing in August 2002. Two years later, his skull was found near a lake. More of his bones soon turned up in the area.

The remains were taken to the medical examiner's office. From there, he was taken to the cemetery in a cardboard box — the same box he was buried in.

In July, Davis was given a proper burial and military ceremony.

• • •

It takes Jones a day to make two urns.

He does it with care.

He cuts the sides of the boxes with a router, creating four interlocking pieces that fit snuggly together like a zipper. The top glues on. The remains are put in the box through the bottom, which is then screwed tight. He spray lacquers the whole box.

Jim Orndoff, Jones' brother-in-law who helped him develop the idea, said it's a valuable project.

As a family counselor for Veterans Funeral Care in Clearwater, he hears of numerous veterans who are cremated and can't pay for proper burials.

He estimates he deals with three or four cases every month in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

"There's so many homeless vets out there," he said. "It can happen."

Kurt Rotar, the cemetery director at the Florida National Cemetery, agreed on the project's importance.

"I'm sure there's going to be families that are appreciative of that," he said.

There would be no legal problems burying the urns, Rotar said. There are no current limitations or policies on what can and cannot be buried.

"We will inter whatever the family brings to us," he said. "That's our policy."

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who attended Davis' July burial, said it's important every veteran gets a proper burial.

"I'm grateful for the hard work of others to ensure those who served our nation are treated with the utmost respect," said Nelson.

• • •

The urns come in all different sizes.

They're made with all different types of wood — whatever is donated or on hand — and each woodworker can use whatever technique he wants.

"Whatever way you're comfortable with making a box, just do it," Jones said. "The important part is that we have some nice, decent boxes for these guys."

Some have decorative routing to give it more character. Eventually, they might add medallions for each branch of service.

But for now, they'll have the same words stamped into the bottom in black ink:

"A Place To Rest Honoring Our American Hero Veteran."

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432.

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