E. Donald Lawrence stands in the section of the Burgess Cemetery gate that was stolen last month and most likely sold for scrap. (Josh Stilts/Reformer)
E. Donald Lawrence stands in the section of the Burgess Cemetery gate that was stolen last month and most likely sold for scrap. (Josh Stilts/Reformer)
Thursday June 7, 2012

GRAFTON -- Police are looking for a group of thieves that stole part of a 160-year-old iron gate from the Burgess Cemetery last month.

According to Windham County Sheriff Department Capt. Robert Lakin, the nearly 400-pound left section of the gate was taken from the cemetery in the past three weeks.

"The metal's not good quality but the historical value is priceless," he said.

E. Donald Lawrence, the cemetery agent for the Grafton Selectboard, said the portion of the gate, with the word "CEMETERY" engraved on it, was worth roughly $2,500 -- but to replace it would cost much more.

"I honestly don't know how to put a value on something historical like that," he told the Reformer. "I just don't understand the reason for stealing it. It seems to me you can manufacture jobs if you're in dire need. It doesn't need to come to this."

Sometime after Tropical Storm Irene caused historic flooding in southern Vermont, part of the gate's hinge was damaged.

There was no place to work on the gate so a friend helped Lawrence move it behind the stone wall that surrounds the cemetery.

"There's no drag marks so no one pulled it out of here," he said. "The only explanation is a couple people heaved it into the back of a truck and sold it for scrap metal. It just doesn't make sense to do something like this."

Lawrence, an 85-year-old World War II veteran, said he knows first-hand what it's like when there's little to no jobs available.


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"When I first got out of the service there wasn't much for people to do," he said. "But we made it work, we found jobs out there, we didn't have to resort to this."

After serving on the USS Houston near the end of the war helping to clean up battle-scarred sites in North Africa and Europe, Lawrence returned home to Guilford to work at various companies until he and a friend ventured out on their own to build tennis courts.

Thirty years later he retired and sought out a different career path working in the paper industry for about two decades before retiring a second time.

It was then he heard about the cemetery grounds keeper in Grafton who was in his mid-80s at the time and in need of help, so Lawrence volunteered to help mow lawns, repair headstones, rake debris and maintain the grave sites.

That was almost 20 years ago and Lawrence said he wouldn't have it any other way.

Every day Lawrence gets up at about 3 a.m. to have his raisin toast and coffee and starts work by 6 a.m., taking an hour lunch break to visit with friends, then back to work for a few more hours.

"I love doing it," he said. "I need the physical activity."

Lawrence said he works four days a week for about five hours and often with the help of another Grafton resident, Walt Critchfield.

"I know all these families. My cousin is buried over there," he said pointing to a nearby grave stone. "I don't think of them as skeletons in the ground, I think of the memories I've shared with them."

Capt. Lakin said the gate is one of numerous recent thefts of metal for scrap.

Last month thieves cut down active telephone lines in Dover to sell the copper.

On Monday, a Brattleboro man was arrested for possession of stolen property after police found approximately 225 feet of stolen, commercial-grade telephone line.

According to Vermont State Police Senior Trooper Kurt Wagenbach, 31-year-old Daniel M. Wainwright also had evidence of an additional 193 feet of stolen telephone line that had already been stripped and allegedly sold for the copper wire within.

Anyone with information about the stolen gate is asked to contact the Windham County Sheriff's Department at 802-365-4949.

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.