Folks in New Baden know that when local business owner and resident Marvin Spaeth does something, he does it right.
So all they could do was sit back and wait to see what sort of magic he came up with when the 66-year-old veteran of the Vietnam War put his mind to fixing up the dilapidated St. George Catholic Church Cemetery and New Baden Village Cemetery in the center of town.
Not only did he clean 663 headstones by hand with a wire brush. He moved 1,000 cubic yards of earth and replaced it with two-foot-wide strips of concrete, on which the grave markers — many of them tilted by the years or broken by vandals — were placed perfectly upright in neat and uniform rows.
He built a stone entrance to the cemetery, installed sidewalks and lighting. Then, to cap off the five-year labor of love, he designed and built a 20-foot-tall stone tower in the center of the cemetery, inscribed with the names of New Baden’s 330 residents who fought for freedom in foreign wars.
The monument will be dedicated at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
“I can’t help myself,” Spaeth explained when asked why he took on the project that took up almost every weekday night and weekend day from sunrise to sunset from 2010 through 2015. “I get an idea and it drives me nuts until I do it.”
I can’t help myself. I get an idea and it drives me nuts until I do it.
Spaeth said he had no estimate for how much time or money he donated to the project.
“I didn’t really think about that,” Spaeth said. “All I asked was to be able to do things my way.
“When I came up with the idea for the monument I told Father Neff: ‘The way Marvin designs it is the way it’s going to be built. I’m not going to argue about it with a committe for six or eight months,’” Spaeth said.
The Rev. Gene Neff, pastor at St. George Catholic Church, readily agreed to the terms.
“We knew he’d do something wonderful,” Neff said. “What we see here now is unbelievable.
“This cemetery is holy ground,” Neff said. “People come here to find some peace and reflect on the person they lost. They feel that maybe here they’ll find what they’re looking for. But before all of (Spaeth’s) work, this wasn’t that kind of place.”
This cemetery is holy ground. People come here to find some peace and reflect on the person they lost. They feel that maybe here they’ll find what they’re looking for. But before all of (Spaeth’s) work, this wasn’t that kind of place.
Rev. Gene Neff, pastor of St. George Catholic Church
Spaeth served in Vietnam from October 1969 until March 1971. He was sent home after being injured when a barrel of oil exploded, throwing him back and catching his clothes on fire.
Part of his inspiration for the memorial was the memory of two high school buddies, Theodore Walters and Ralph Wellinghoff, the only two Vietnam War soldiers memorialized on the monument.
In all, 350 names are listed on the monument, dating back to New Athens veterans representing the Revolutionary War.
“I felt sorry for people who had to come here to see their loved ones when this place was in such a sorry state,” Spaeth explained of his determination to fix up the cemetery and build the memorial to veterans. “I hope this is a place now where they can come to get some peace.”
Spaeth owns a welding shop in New Baden. With his half-decade-long project winding up just in time for Veterans Day, Spaeth said he has no idea what he’ll do now with his free time.
“I guess I’ll have to find a hobby,” he said with a laugh. “But I never seem to have a problem finding a way to keep myself busy.”