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Trucker gears up to honor servicemembers with thousands of wreaths

By MIKE TIGHE | La Crosse Tribune, Wisc. (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 25, 2016

SPARTA, Wisconsin (Tribune News Service) — Trucker Paul Sagehorn will ease his 53-foot semitrailer onto the highway in front of The Hardware Store in Sparta Dec. 13 for the 1,500-plus mile trek to Bangor to pick up Christmas wreaths.

Oh, a clarification: Lest you think Sagehorn's GPS is off and he will drive in circles to get to Bangor -- a mere 11 miles down Hwy. 16 from Sparta -- his destination is north of Bangor, Maine, to load up thousands of wreaths.

Then he will swing south for the 700-or-so mile drive to Arlington, Va. There, he will hook up with a 65- to 70-truck caravan that will snake through Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 17 to deliver the wreaths to be placed on the graves of the hundreds of thousands of service members who rest there.

That date marks the annual Wreaths Across America, when wreaths also will be distributed at more than 1,100 additional sites in all 50 states, at sea and abroad -- including Woodlawn Cemetery in La Crosse.

"I believe in the cause," Sagehorn explained simply during an interview in front of the 53-foot truck trailer he recently had tricked out with patriotic murals specifically for the occasion. "It's the most amazing thing to see."

Sagehorn will participate in the ambitious honorific for military members for the third time, after stumbling upon the story of the 24-year tradition by accident.

"I was listening to Accent Radio, and I never listen to that," he said. "I happened to listen this time, and it was dumb luck, a fluke."

Surplus wreaths launch tradition

The radio narrator told of Morrill Worcester, who was so impressed during a boyhood visit to Arlington National Cemetery that, decades later, in 1992, he came up with a novel idea on what to do with his company's surplus of 5,000 wreaths.

Worcester had them taken to Arlington, launching an annual tribute that existed quietly for more than 10 years, until growing national interest prompted a group of volunteers to form the Wreaths nonprofit in 2007.

The cadre of volunteers and truckers ballooned so much that the wreaths are put on 250,000 graves at Arlington and thousands more elsewhere every year. Many of the truckers drive for companies, such as Walmart, that have their trailers decked out for the occasion, which instilled a desire in Sagehorn's heart.

That dream was fulfilled through a happy collision of business interests and collaboration between Sagehorn and Eric K. Olson, owner of Pica Grove Image

Allies in Sparta.

Olson, who has operated Pica Grove with his wife, Sue Iverson, and a part-time worker for four years, needed a place big enough to accommodate some of his larger illustration projects. Sagehorn had just the spot -- his trucking building with three trailer bays, so they struck a deal in which Olson crafts his creations from designs he conceives on his computer.

Watching Olson's work evolve into major projects, including part of the Viking ship from which Minnesota Vikings players emerge in their new stadium and a 6-foot, intricate design of a motorcycle engine for S & S Cycle in La Crosse, kindled the flames of the fire in Sagehorn's belly to have his trailer wrapped in a patriotic design.

Sagehorn and Olson talked about it off and on until the trucker called the designer and said he had decided to take the leap.

Visions mesh perfectly

"I had this vision of what I wanted it to be, and Eric Olson created it to perfection," said Sagehorn, a veteran who followed the wakes of his dad and grandfather into the Navy, a stream that his son Wyatt also is navigating in the Navy Reserves. "I wanted a military presence."

Olson remembers details a bit differently, but in a good way, with a bit of give-and-take and evolving ideas as he was designing the panels on a computer.

"Once Paul gets an idea in his head, that's where it is," Olson said with a laugh.

From Sagehorn's perspective, the trucker said, "I knew when we did it, we had to do it right."

Sagehorn supplied a couple of photos he had taken during his forays to Arlington, while Olson came up with graphics for the American flag and a regal eagle.

Wanting to include a service member, Sagehorn had Wyatt pose in a salute for a photo that son Hank shot in the family driveway, after daughter Tara, a cosmetologist at Sitara in Onalaska, had given Wyatt a haircut, making it a family affair, with wife Kristina in the wings.

Sagehorn said he chose Wyatt as the model not to glorify him but to symbolize service members in general, which is why the photo is a side view.

"I just wanted the image of a sailor," Sagehorn said. "If you knew who he was, you would recognize him, but if not, he is just a sailor."

Sagehorn also meticulously ensured that details are precise, such as the direction of the flag, with the blue field of stars toward the front, and the need to flip Wyatt's photo on one side of the truck or it would have appeared as if he were saluting with his left hand.

From Olson's viewpoint, "It took a while to get my vision of it in my head. I did one design, but I didn't like it. It looked slapped together, bush league -- like a first-year designer did it.

"One day, it kind of all came together," he said.

The gelling included Olson's inclusion of a graphic of the Constitution to fill a gap, and creating the words for a patriotic message Sagehorn wanted.

"I didn't want to copy it or misquote somebody, so I came up with it myself," Olson said.

The message is: "Many lives have been sacrificed for your freedom and our country ... Never forget what they have given you."

"When he saw that -- I thought he was excited before, but he really liked it," Olson said.

"He put the Constitution in there, and to me, it was absolute perfection," Sagehorn said. "He nailed it, and I said don't change a thing.

The front of the trailer -- a photo of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that Sagehorn took with his cell phone -- is Sagehorn's favorite feature, while the back acknowledges all U.S. military branches -- Marines, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Army.

First look: 'Wow'

Olson, who had been working with an image roughly 8 by 40 inches, contracted out the actual wrapping to MadWraps in Madison, in part for its extensive experience and in part for its seven-year guarantee. So the finished product was as big a surprise to him as to Sagehorn.

"When that truck pulled in, my jaw dropped," Olson said. "Wow -- it's one thing to see it small scale -- but full size ..."

Asked how the project compares to other designs he has been involved in, Olson said, "I guess it is kind of in its own category. The most impressive? I don't know, but it's the biggest piece of artwork I've ever done."

The 16-year-old trailer, which looks brand new with its facelift, is an attention-grabber in the parking lot of The Hardware Store, which Sagehorn's father, Craig, founded and sold to him, and he, in turn, recently sold to Wyatt.

Sagehorn, who figures the design can compete easily with any of those on the big-box chain trucks, is itching to head East to help deliver the memorial wreaths.

"They're all big companies, so it's nothing for them," he said. "I'm just a one-man show, and I've got $11,000 in it. That's a lot of money for me, but I really believe in it."

Distributing the wreaths fuels that belief, he said.

"The part that gets you is when you see the volunteers," Sagehorn said, gazing as if envisioning it in The Hardware Store's office. "The whole cemetery is full of people. It's just amazing -- all from one man's vision from what he saw as a kid and extrapolated to the whole country."

The pedal-to-the-metal scope of the project is rooted in a man's observation while visiting his son's grave on Veterans Day, Sagehorn said. The man asked why his son's grave didn't have a wreath, while those on either side did. That spurred the resolve to honor each service member with a wreath on every grave -- and not just for appearances.

Memorializing lives, not deaths

As Wreaths Across America Executive Director Karen Worcester explains, "We are not here to 'decorate graves.' We're here to remember not their deaths, but their lives."

An estimated 30,000 volunteers have the wreaths in place in 1 1/2 hours or so, Sagehorn said.

Sagehorn's quest to become a trucker traces to his own childhood, when he became an avid fan of the trucking TV series "B.J. and the Bear" and "Movin' On."

"It was just two silly TV shows," he said. "My dad is not even an old-time trucker," although folks assume that when Craig takes one of Sagehorn's two rigs on the road.

"I helped him get his CDL," he said.

"My plan was to graduate from high school, be in the Navy for three years and run the hardware store," he said.

"I always wanted a truck," Sagehorn said, adding that he fancied owning one like B.J.'s. "By dumb luck, I came upon one that was used on the series."

Sagehorn restored it and drove it for a time before retiring it to a leisurely truckstyle.

Life has gone pretty true to Sagehorn's plan, and even his selling the store, where son Hank also works, to Wyatt is serendipitous.

"We still all work together. It seemed like the right time," he said.

"The part that gets you is when you see the volunteers. The whole cemetery is full of people. It's just amazing -- all from one man's vision from what he saw as a kid and extrapolated to the whole country."

The Eternal Flame - looking a bit like a heart - at President John F. Kennedy's wife's grave site in Arlington National Cemetery during Wreaths Across America on Dec. 12, 2015. A Wisconsin trucker and Navy veteran will be delivering many wreaths in a specially-decorated trailer this year.
MEREDITH TIBBETTS/STARS AND STRIPES

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