Honoring the fallen

For nearly 40 years, George Priest, 88, has placed American flags on veterans graves in North Fork

Carmen GeorgeMay 22, 2013 

Walking amongst the tombstones in the North Fork Cemetery, George Priest knows many of the names carved in stone.

The 88-year-old has been a resident of North Fork for more than 60 years, and he recalls many of the town's past personalities affectionately.

Normally full of humor, stories and a bright smile, every Memorial Day morning, however, he is mostly quiet.

For almost 40 years, he's spent each of those mornings in a respectful reverence, walking around the North Fork Cemetery carrying armfuls of small, American flags to place beside the graves of veterans.

Last year, there were 154.

As a World War II veteran, it's a tradition of respect that Priest has been involved in since 1976, as part of the now-disbanded North Fork Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #7140.

For the last 10 years, he's kept the tradition going after the local post dwindled and dispersed, assisted by a former post member or two over the years.

For the past five years, his daughter-in-law Chery Priest has also been helping him place the flags. Last year, he also received 12 dozen new flags from the Oakhurst VFW for the cemetery, something he is very grateful for.

"He doesn't look at it as an obligation," said Chery of George's motivation to keep the tradition going. "He does it because it's respectful."

Born the middle child of nine siblings on a farm in Vermont, George's family moved to Massachusetts during the Great Depression. In June of 1943, the day after he graduated from high school, he was drafted into World War II.

Eager to serve, he became an Army technician that ran telephone lines between troops and headquarters in the 98th infantry division, also known as the "Pineapple Division," George recalls with a smile, because they were stationed in Hawaii. Later, he was involved in the occupation of Japan after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Someone has to take care of them," says George about why he continues to place American flags on the graves every Memorial Day. "They didn't want it to happen to them (have to go to war), but it did. They served their country and we want to honor them for serving their country."

"I'm very proud of this man," said Chery of George, highlighting his generous nature. "I think he's an exceptional human being."

He's also a strong man. While he may be 88 and just finished radiation treatment Christmas Eve for neck cancer, one of his favorite hobbies is chopping firewood, what he likes to gathers in large, long piles at the bottom of his property.

This Memorial Day, a young local veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jason Donahue, will be joining George to help place the flags.

"I hope that this younger generation will be there to continue this pilgrimage to the cemetery to carry on the tradition when George is unable to," Chery said.

"I'm so honored to be helping place the flags with him and it's an amazing experience with him," she said. "He takes it serious. It's very respectful. Like I said, I'm proud of this ol' guy."

Memorial Day ceremonies in area

The Oakhurst VFW will be holding Memorial Day ceremonies throughout the Mountain Area on Memorial Day, May 27, that are open to the public.

An honor guard from the Marine Corps League Griswold Mountain Detachment 1121 will be present at each location, along with speakers from different area groups. Along with VFW and Marine Corps members, The American Legion will also assist with "The Avenue of the Flags" -- where large casket flags from area veterans are raised at 7:30 a.m. in Oakhill Cemetery leading to Oakhurst's Little Church on the Hill.

The schedule of area ceremonies includes:

9 a.m. -- Ceremony at Wassama Round House in Ahwahnee.

10 a.m. -- Ceremony at Oakhill Cemetery in Oakhurst.

11 a.m. -- Ceremony at Picayune Cemetery in Coarsegold.

1 p.m. -- Ceremony at North Fork Cemetery in North Fork.

At noon, another ceremony, unaffiliated with the other VFW Memorial Day ceremonies, will be held at the local wall of veterans names at Gas N' Stuff in North Fork.

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