SARASOTA – For four years, Bill and April McCausland lived next door to Edward K. Pearson in a Naples mobile home park. They knew him as “Mr. Ed,” a cheerful soul who sat on his porch and waved at everyone who passed by.
On Tuesday, the McCauslands were among an estimated 1,500 people who showed up at Sarasota National Cemetery to salute Pearson, an Army veteran whose open-to-all funeral became a social media phenomenon after politicians and a CNN anchor tweeted about it. They were among the handful at the service who had actually met the man.
If Pearson, 80, had seen the huge turnout of so many people he didn’t know, Mrs. McCausland said, "he would have cried, then laughed, then saluted everybody."
The turnout was the largest in the 10-year history of the Sarasota National Cemetery for an unclaimed veteran, said cemetery director John Rosentrater. Part of it was because of the social media campaign, he said, but he said part of it was because of the photo of Pearson that ran with his obituary in the Naples Daily News.
“It was a very endearing picture,” Rosentrater said. “It could have been my grandpa.”
The event attracted everyone from bikers to bagpipers who wanted to pay tribute to the onetime private first class. Many showed up pledging their allegiance with their clothing choices: red, white and blue ties, shirts, shorts and dresses.
So many people showed up, in fact, that it prevented the service from starting on time. Funeral director Michael Hoyt of Legacy Options, who was bringing the urn containing Pearson’s ashes from Naples, got stuck in the massive traffic jam outside the cemetery entrance. He was delayed so long that Sarasota County sheriff’s deputies tracked him down in the line of traffic, pulled him out and gave him a police escort to the cemetery’s Patriot Pavilion.
Among those who crowded into the open-air venue were Bill Daigle of Riverview, who spent 20 years in the Air Force, and his son Al Daigle of Tampa, who spent 20 years in the Navy. At a time when the nation seems so divided politically, they said, saluting a veteran is one thing that brings everyone together.
“If you’ve got a V behind your name for ‘veteran,’ then we’re here for you,” Al Daigle said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Trump supporter or an Obama supporter or a Hillary (Clinton) supporter, we’re here for you.”
Hoyt, whose family-owned firm provides free funerals for indigent veterans, said he hadn’t laid out a formal program for Pearson’s ceremony. It was just “organic,” he said, meaning he relied on the military and veterans’ support groups to take the lead. For instance, neither he nor Rosentrater knew the name of the woman who volunteered to sing the National Anthem, and after her performance she disappeared into the crowd.
No one talked about how Pearson had been born in Pennsylvania and worked for Marriott hotels. Nobody mentioned that he’d lived in Naples for 25 years and how his mobile home had been seriously damaged by Hurricane Ivan, so he lived for his last two years amid mold and mildew and a leaky roof. They also didn’t mention how he’d been conned into buying a mobile home from someone who didn’t own it, a legal problem that took some time to untangle.
Instead, what was important to the crowd was the two years he spent in the Army in the early 1960s. Pearson served as symbol for all the veterans who wind up being buried without family around, their service to their country no guarantee that they will be mourned.
Once Hoyt arrived, an Army honor guard carefully removed the star-spangled urn from the back seat and set it gently on a table, then put a folded flag in front of it. They later handed the flag to Jay Hatcher whose Naples organization, Freedom Eagles, collects tattered flags to use in veterans’ cremations. He had never met Pearson, but he got the flag, he explained, because “I’m the flag man.”
Pearson’s eulogy came from Seena Washington, who as chaplain at a Naples hospice knew Pearson for only a few days before stage four prostate cancer claimed his life. She cited the verses from Ecclesiastes about there being a time to be born and a time to die, and the ones from First Corinthians about faith, hope and love.
Then a nurse named Jean Upton led the crowd in singing the gospel classic In the Garden. Someone released white doves and then it was time for the Lord’s Prayer and God Bless America.
As Washington gave a benediction, a lot of the attendees began scooting toward the exit, trying to beat the traffic that was soon snaking out on the roads looping around the cemetery’s 21,000 graves. A few stuck around, though, lining up for a chance to walk by Pearson’s urn and reach out to touch it – a rare personal connection between the mourners and man they were honoring.
One of those mourners who touched the urn was Dave Eichelberger of St. Pete Beach. He said he drove down to “show respect and honor” to a fellow veteran. Also, he said, he had another motive.
“I’m looking to get some ideas,” he explained. “My brother is in bad shape, and I’m the only one he has.”