BLOOMINGTON — Christine and Gary Gruber didn't know anything about Walter Seeger or Gus Williams until they “adopted” their graves as part of a project to honor McLean County soldiers who died during World War I.
“Now we talk about Wally and Gus like they're family members,” said Christine Gruber of Bloomington.
For Suzanne Kraus of Chicago, the family connection already was there when she launched the adopt-a-grave project. The John Kraus Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 454 is named after her uncle, who was killed in France during the war at the age of 18.
Killed on July 18, 1918, he is sometimes described as the first McLean County resident to die in the war, but his niece said that's not accurate.
“He represented the average soldier from McLean County — a rural, small-town boy who worked on the farm,” she said.
Each Memorial Day, the VFW post has a ceremony at the grave of John Kraus at Park Lawn Cemetery in Danvers.
“That's kept him very alive in our family,” said Suzanne Kraus. “It's a touchstone for the family and a reason to get together over the years.”
About two years ago, Kraus said she was reading about the upcoming centennial of the end what was known as “the Great War” and “I started thinking about who else died” and didn't have someone to care for their grave.
So, working with Post 454 and the Lexington Genealogical and Historical Society, also known as “The Fort,” Kraus began gathering information on where McLean County's World War I soldiers were buried and organizing an adopt-a-grave project for those who died during the war.
The graves of 110 World War I soldiers are located in 35 cemeteries in the region. There are 13 WWI McLean County soldiers buried elsewhere in Illinois and another 32 across the country, including one in Arlington National Cemetery. Twenty others remain in Europe.
The goal is to have each grave in the region cleaned and decorated by Nov. 1, in time for the Centennial Armistice Day on Nov. 11.
The post hosted an open house for the project on Sept. 30. Kraus said the event was very successful, with about 75 percent of the graves in McLean County adopted. She would like to see the remaining 25 percent be adopted in time for the commemoration.
Organizers are looking into obtaining Illinois flags to place on the graves along with a bouquet of artificial poppies, the flowers associated with World War I.
Christine Gruber said it took about 45 minutes for her and her husband to clear layer after layer of dirt and lichens from the gravestones of the two soldiers buried in Evergreen Ceremony whose graves they adopted. The writing on Seeger's grave was nearly obscured before their efforts.
Care must be taken to avoid damaging the stones. Gruber said they used plain water, paper towels, nylon scrubbies “and lots of elbow grease.”
They also have adopted two graves at Park Hill Cemetery, but those stones are in relatively good shape.
Gary Gruber served in the Army during the Vietnam War era. Both of their fathers served during World War II.
“We have a history of being proud of our military,” Christine Gruber said.
Through biographies provided by Kraus and their own online research, they learned Seeger was a pressman at Pantagraph Printing and Stationery before joining the military and Gus Williams was a cook at the nearby Illinois House hotel.
“I wonder if these gentlemen ever passed each other downtown” before the war, pondered Gruber.
Seeger married while home on leave but died in the Argonne forest about a month later, on Oct. 17, 1918, only a few weeks before the Armistice was signed.
Williams, a member of the all-black 370th U.S. Infantry, died Sept. 20, 1918, two days after his 26th birthday. At the end of the war, the American Legion was segregated, so a separate black post, Redd-Williams American Legion Post 163, was formed in 1922, honoring Williams and another member of the 370th U.S. Infantry who died in France, John Redd.
Kraus is looking into the possibility of organizing a tour to Europe to clean gravestones and place Illinois flags on the graves of the McLean County soldiers who never came home and remain buried in Belgium and France.
Anyone interested in adopting a grave or contributing money for flags and flowers can contact Kraus at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Jan Heuer at Lexington Genealogical Society at 309-365-4591 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Photos: Preserving military history in Bloomington's cemeteries
Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota