“Now the trumpet summons us again,” John Benson recited with gusto Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery, quoting from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address while standing just steps from his grave. The 71-year-old Rhode Island resident knows the famous speech by memory because he carved it into stone.
On Thursday, workers began a weeklong project to re-stain the letters Benson hand-carved into 30-ton pieces of Deer Isle granite. The stones sit across from Kennedy’s eternal flame, in a plaza frequented by most of the 4 million people who visit the cemetery each year.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic lay organization, is paying about $6,000 for the restoration to honor the upcoming 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s inauguration.
“This guy was a brother Knight; we fondly remember his presidency and want to maintain the memory of the wonderful speeches he gave,” said Knights spokesman Patrick Korten. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president, was a member of the group’s Bunker Hill Council 62 in Charlestown, Mass., from 1946 until his death in 1963.
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Several Knights visited the gravesite last summer and had difficulty reading the carved letters that appeared to be fading in the blazing sun.
“Washington is a place where the great figures in American history have their most famous words emblazoned in granite,” Korten said Thursday. “You go down to the Lincoln Memorial or the Jefferson Memorial, they’re easily readable. This has not been in that state for some while,” he said, pointing to the stones. The group contacted cemetery officials soon after their visit and offered to pay for the work. A Kennedy family spokesman declined comment Thursday on the restoration.
Back in 1965 at the age of 25, Benson literally worked hand over fist to carve the speech into place.
“There was no computer cutting back then,” he said, adding that he chose to carve the speech with Roman majuscule, or the capital letters first used on monuments built in 2nd-century Rome.
On Thursday, hundreds of schoolchildren and dozens of Italian tourists stopped to admire Benson’s work and hear him tell stories about carving the stones to Gordon Ponsford, the man hired to give them new life.
Kennedy’s words “are great, but if you draw an inscription as I did maybe 100 times, it takes on a totally different nature and ceases to be a piece of prose or speechifying,” Benson said. “It becomes an artistic artifact that you’re doing your darndest to bring to its highest possible level.”
He’s pleased that there is renewed interest in the work and that a new team will refinish it. But, he said, “There’s nothing wrong with the wrinkles of old age. It’s an added attraction to the appearance.”
Ponsford, 51, of Acworth, Ga., has worked on 27 major projects at the cemetery in 22 years, including restoration of the cemetery’s Rough Riders Monument, Confederate Memorial and McClellan Gate. He started researching the Kennedy stones shortly after he was hired for the project and discovered that Benson was still alive.
Indeed, Benson is no stranger to Washington’s historic sites. He carved Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most famous quotations into stones at his memorial on the Tidal Basin. His son, Nick, did similar work at the World War II Memorial and is working on carvings at the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
“If we had not got this job, perhaps my personal career might not have gone in the precise arc and speed that it did,” Benson said. “But prior to this and subsequent to this, we got a lot of significant work and good work.”
Ponsford was especially pleased to hear from the original artist, a rarity in his line of work. “Most of the monuments we work on are generally over 100 years old, so we never, ever get to personally meet the carver or sculptor,” he said. “This is just one of those rare occasions.”
Ponsford was also pleased to bring positive attention to the embattled military cemetery, still reeling from revelations of misplaced graves and shoddy recordkeeping.
“There’s been too much bad news here lately, so it’s time for something good,” he said.