BAINBRIDGE -- Each year around Memorial Day, Vance Tillotson sees to it that the veterans buried in the Bainbridge Cemetery have American flags placed at their gravesites.
It is a show of respect that is important to Tillotson -- so important that he has done it for five decades.
"When I started out, there were 30, maybe 40 graves out here to put flags on," Tillotson said. "Now there are 127."
Tillotson has a list of veteran's graves in the cemetery. He continually updates the list with the help of the Bainbridge Cemetery Board and by keeping an eye on obituaries in local newspapers.
"I'm online checking obituaries three or four times a week," he said. "I also find a lot out just by word of mouth."
Tillotson gets choked up when he talks about his reasons for keeping up the Memorial Day tradition he has taken part in since he was 5 years old.
"A lot of people probably don't know that I do this and they probably don't really care," he said, his voice cracking. "But I think about the things the vets went through, the things they saw to give us the life we have now ... and this is the least I can do."
Tillotson began decorating the graves of veterans with his father, Jesse "Tilly" Tillotson. Tillotson was a Boy Scout, his father a troop leader.
"When my dad started doing this, it was just so the scouts had a project to do," Tillotson said. "I can remember having to go through piles of flags and weed out the ones with the right numbers of stars on them ... some of them had 48 and some of them had 49."
Eventually, Tillotson (who achieved the rank of Eagle in Boy Scouts) and his troop mates grew up, and the Bainbridge scout troop disbanded for a time.
But Tillotson and his father continued their Memorial Day tradition at the Bainbridge Cemetery.
"It was just supposed to be something I was going to do until Bainbridge got another Boy Scout troop and they could take it over again," Tillotson said.
As the years passed, however, Tillotson kept putting out the flags himself. He moved to New Whiteland in the early 1980s, but came back every year to make sure the military graves in the Bainbridge Cemetery were adorned with flags each Memorial Day.
"When we did it as scouts, we'd come out at sunrise on Memorial Day to put them out and then come back at sunset to take them down the same day," Tillotson said. "Now I usually do it a couple of days before Memorial Day ... I like to do it so they're up through the whole weekend."
Tillotson said he is always awed by the stories he hears from veterans.
"My dad was in Korea, and he's just recently started to talk about it," he said. "I have a great uncle who got a Purple Heart in World War II."
Tillotson knows exactly where the majority of the military gravesites in the Bainbridge Cemetery are, and can tell stories about some of them.
Walking through the grass among the markers, it almost seems as if Tillotson is visiting old friends.
"Here's Jeremiah Wampler," he said, planting a flag near a smooth, white stone bearing the dates 1780-1883. "You can see here it says he was in the War of 1812. He lived to be 103 years old, which is something now, but was really something back then."
Tillotson also pointed out the gravestone of Matthew Leon, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who died in 1920.
"I found him by accident," Tillotson said.
Tillotson actually knew many of the veterans whose graves he decorates for Memorial Day.
"Here's Cecil Kays," he said. "He was in World War II and died in 1981. He was my Sunday school teacher.
"Over here in this big vault is Lester Veach, who was in World War I," he said. "Doc Veach was my doctor. His answer for everything was penicillin. I can remember going to him for appointments and he'd be sitting there smoking while he was talking to you."
Back in the days when Tillotson and his scout troop placed the flags at the cemetery, the flags were purchased by groups such as the American Legion or VFW.
"But along the way somewhere they stopped doing that," Tillotson said.
For the past several years, Tillotson has paid for the flags out of his own pocket. This year, he spent about $125.
A few years ago, Tillotson encountered a group of women from a Daughters of the American Revolution group putting flags out at the Bainbridge Cemetery. He noticed they were only placing flags on graves with government markers -- which meant they were missing a lot of veterans.
"I walked around with them for a while showing them where all the veterans were that didn't have government markers," he said. "After a while, they just handed me their flags and said, 'Here ... you know where they should go better than we do.'"
Tillotson's mother Carol still lives near enough to the Bainbridge Cemetery that when Tillotson is there he can look out and see all the flags he has placed flapping in the breeze.
"It gives me a really good feeling," he said.
Tillotson's wife Kathy said her husband has never asked for any recognition for his efforts.
"He never wants to bring any attention to himself," she said.
Tillotson hopes his son Mike, who is almost 30, will carry on the Memorial Day decoration tradition in Bainbridge Cemetery that started two generations before him.
"He says he will," Tillotson said. "I've already decided I'm going to be buried here; I'm going to come home."
"And I told him I want a flag on my grave," he said. "I'm not a veteran, but I figure maybe I'm an honorary one."