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Cross-generational pair pays it forward by restoring veteran headstones

Madonna White and Aaron Schultz use a special chemical to clean the marble headstones at Oakland Cemetery.
Madonna White and Aaron Schultz use a special chemical to clean the marble headstones at Oakland Cemetery.
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In a place so synonymous with the end of life, Aaron Schultz is just getting started bringing new life to the headstones of Iowa City's Oakland Cemetery.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh this person died in 1965 so his headstone should be dirty, that’s normal,'" Schultz says. "But there’s a way to clean it off and preserve it to what it was. A really fulfilling thing to do.”

The teen first unearthed his new hobby in a Solon cemetery after he discovered some brass markers buried under years' of dirt. He shared his before-and-after photos with other history buffs like Madonna White.

“He posted that on this Facebook page and I was just fascinated by that, I was like what’s this young kid doing digging up these tombstones, why is he doing that?” White laughs.

“Hmm, yeah you won’t see a lot of young people out here, scrubbing headstones," Schultz says.

He just graduated high school. She's retired. Now this cross-generational pair meet regularly to scrape and scrub away the decades.

“See this lichen here, come off?” White says as she pushes away the gray grime. “Even just the water takes stuff off."

They keep an eye out for certain stones because they're here for a specific purpose: to pay it forward to those who served.

“He’s very good at spotting them, from a distance," White says. "'There’s one, there’s one, there’s one.”'

Schultz says he started cleaning veteran headstones in the fall; White joined him in the spring.

“Not all these veterans died during conflict," White says. "They all served our country, that’s just what’s so cool about each of them getting a headstone.”

They may be scrubbing a stranger's name, but the story is familiar.

“My dad was a vet, my husband’s a vet, my son’s active duty military," White says.

“And my great-grandfather was a major in the U.S. Army and my father served in the Navy for four years," Schultz adds.

Schultz took inspiration from The Good Cemeterian, who he saw on a national program a few years back. The teen was using his own paychecks from two jobs to buy the necessary supplies, until White supplied a solution: an online fundraiser.

They use a special chemical, the same one used regularly at Arlington National Cemetery, to remove years' worth of neglect.

“Three or four days, come back it’ll look so much better," White says.

Though it's the hours they spend together that really make the difference.

“We’re gonna work on these veterans stones, we’re gonna keep finding them and working at them all summer. And summers to come, 'til we get them all," White says.

“Yeah, well it’s a good way to spend your time doing a good deed," Schultz agrees. "Giving back, yes.”

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Thanks to our sponsors, Carlos O'Kellys and Copyworks, $100 will be donated to The Good Cemeterian on behalf of White and Schultz.

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