Paul Martin, cemetery director for Chattanooga National Cemetery, retired Saturday after having worked in the Chattanooga area for over five years. Martin has worked at 9 national cemeteries throughout his career.Staff photo by Dan Henry
Twenty-five years ago, Paul Martin swapped paperwork for people and began a career of honoring his brothers and sisters in arms.
Martin served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and re-enlisted until leaving active duty in 1977. He got a job with the Veterans Health Administration as a mail clerk, spending eight years filing paperwork for veterans' personnel, retirement and health insurance needs.
But Martin said he wanted to do something more personal. So he took a pay cut to go to work at the new Indian Town Gap National Cemetery in Annville, Pa.
"It was a better opportunity to serve veterans in a more personal way," he recalled.
Personal was what he got.
He started as a cemetery representative but worked up to director at a national cemetery in Arkansas. He came to Chattanooga five years ago to direct the national cemeteries in Knoxville, Nashville and here.
On Saturday, he retired after a combined four decades of military service, either in active service or working for the cemeteries.
In Pennsylvania, he was the lead person monitoring the hands-on details of each funeral or memorial service. The emotions of family members who had recently lost a loved one ranged from tears to rage to joy, Martin said.
"You really, really provide a service that's greatly, greatly appreciated," he said.
Early in his career at Indian Town Gap, the wife of a recently deceased veteran grabbed him by the arm during the service and dragged him along to join the singing at the graveside. She told him that of course she was saddened by her husband's death, but he wouldn't want her to be sad on this day.
Martin smiled as he described the event.
In 2000, he transferred to the Fort Smith National Cemetery in Arkansas to take over as the cemetery director, his first assignment in the South.
"I had to change my approach," he laughed.
A Pennsylvania native, Martin was used to a rushed, businesslike approach to his work. He soon realized that his staff in Arkansas took a more relaxed view but still got everything done effectively and on time.
Chattanooga is the only fully open facility among the three he oversees. Spouse burials are open at Knoxville and Nashville, but no space remains for new graves.
As director, he spends most of his time in Chattanooga and visits the other locations a few times a month. By far, Chattanooga is the busiest, averaging 1,100 burials a year, Martin said.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Chattanooga, Martin had to contend with some perceived problems at the cemetery. The Chattanooga Area Veterans Council was working with U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., to add land to the cemetery property, which was expected to be full in 2015.
With a few site studies, the introduction of newer crypts that save space and a coming columbarium -- a memorial that houses cremated remains -- the site should allow for burials until 2046, he said.
Then there was the flower controversy in 2006.
Martin began enforcing cemetery rules prohibiting artificial flowers on graves. There was a lot of resistance by family members used to leaving flowers. But removing and replacing flowers delays mowing and maintenance during the growing season, he said. Artificial flowers are a safety hazard because the wire stems can get caught in lawn equipment, he said.
He remembered phone calls from residents wanting his supervisor's phone number so they could get him fired. But he stuck to the rules and, he said, the number of calls faded.
In fact, the care that residents have for the site reminds him how important the duties have been to keep the cemetery clean and services well-organized, he said.
"It is the largest visual reminder that you will ever have showing that people served their country and how we show our respect for that," he said.
From his golden shovel-shaped tie clasp to his instituting a practice that cemetery caretakers pause during work to remove their hats as funeral processions pass, Martin is a man of detail and ceremony.
"I can go on and on; he's a great guy. He's interested in promoting the welfare of the veterans; he'll be missed," said Ronnie Williams, past chairman of the local veterans council.
Bill Catoe, a caretaker since 2008, said he often sees Martin at the cemetery after hours or on weekends, making sure everything's in order.
"This last Veterans Day ... we were working overtime trying to get the flags up between rain showers and he was out there with his wife and son, having a race to get the flags up," Catoe said. "He didn't have to be out there doing that, but he was out there just to help."
Martin said he decided to retire for a couple of reasons. One is to spend more time with his 8-year-old son. Another is location.
Further promotions in the National Cemetery Administration might mean another move, and Chattanooga is where the couple has decided to stay.
He's looking forward to the day he'll be able to drive by the cemetery and see the place as the public does, without obsessing over all the work to keep it beautiful.
"I'll probably be able to appreciate it more," he said.
Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...