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Prestigious cemetery owes a lot to this Navy veteran

For The Oregonian/OregonLive When Dr. Walter Warren Schafer went to Willamette National Cemetery in 1968 to see his 21-year-old son buried, he was disgusted by what he saw.

Forty acres of mud; many of the 2,000 graves lacking permanent markers; standing water where soil and grass should have blanketed the dead. Cemetery personnel had to weigh down caskets to get them to sink into waterlogged concrete cutouts.

“I didn’t like that,” Schafer said. “I didn’t want my son to be one of them. I thought there was a better way.”

Five decades later, Schafer is upheld as a key force behind the manicured beauty and stature of Willamette National Cemetery, often considered second among national cemeteries only to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. “The changes have been dramatic since then,” he says. Expansion, accessibility and beautification work continue on the cemetery’s current 307 acres.

Schafer, a Navy veteran, plans to be buried there next to his son, Seaman Apprentice

Dr. Walter Warren Schafer visits Willamette National Cemetery. Mark Graves, staff


Donald Raymond Schafer, and alongside approximately 160,000 other veterans. Don died in Quang Tri City, Vietnam, after an explosion on his tanker during a fuel transmission.

Dr. Schafer knows he will be able to rest easy after a long, hard fight — not without controversy — to improve the cemetery. “I just want to say thank you,” he says. He believes his time is short: He turns 99 between Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

In the Happy Valley house that Schafer shares with his wife, Jennie, 82, he walks with the assistance of canes and requires glasses and hearing aids. He appears to have more bristly gray hair in his goatee than on his head. His thick fingers aren’t as nimble as they once were when he photographed nature, made furniture and, during his 35-year medical career, performed dental surgeries and other procedures for patients and as a volunteer for Northwest Medical Teams International. But those fingers still garden and type, albeit at a less feverish pace than during the tumult of the Vietnam War.

Sitting in his spacious basement, Schafer thumbs through a roughly 4-inch stack of dog-eared and yellowed papers, a collection he calls his library. He pulls out letter after letter that he wrote to elected officials and others in positions of power, in Oregon and farther afield, to plead his case.

“Dear Mr. Cronkite,” begins one letter dated March 3, 1970, to the television anchor. Schafer describes the cemetery’s idyllic setting, when viewed from afar. “But,” he continues in his two-page missive on onionskin- like typing paper, “when examined more closely it becomes a national disgrace to the memory of those interred there.”

Five days later, The Oregonian published an article by Schafer, “Home of the Brave,” with black-and-white photographs of open graves and standing water. It became the catalyst for the rebirth of a burial ground.

“Things went bang after the paper came out,” Schafer recalls.

Schafer received this missive, dated March 11, 1970, on CBS News letterhead: “We are assigning a correspondent and film crew to look into the situation at the earliest possible moment. Sincerely yours, Walter Cronkite.”

Neither the storied newsman nor his crew made it to Willamette National Cemetery; they had more pressing Vietnam War reporting. However, one of Schafer’s hundreds of letters — each accompanied by Schafer’s photos — reached someone with potentially more influence. Carl T. Noll, then deputy chief of the memorial division of the Department of the Army, helped convene a March 11, 1970, meeting at the now-defunct Thunderbird Motel on Portland’s east side.

“President Johnson sent (Noll) out to calm me down,” Schafer says with a chuckle. He pokes a gnarled index finger toward a copy of his trenchant article. “(Johnson) didn’t like this at all,” he says, adding, “Carl Noll called me from D.C., saying, ‘Don’t do anything else with the press ‘til I talk to you.’“ According to the faded attendance record from the 9 a.m. working session, more than 20 people joined Schafer and Noll. They Dr. Schafer knows he will be able to rest easy after a long, hard fight — not without controversy — to improve the cemetery.

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