AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s first lady Ann LePage was with her husband in Washington County a few months back when she visited the new Wreaths Across America museum that pays tribute to military veterans.
She had heard about Wreaths Across America, the annual event sponsored by Harrington business owner Morrill Worcester, but admitted she really didn’t know much about it.
“Once I started talking to Morrill and Karen Worcester and saw everything that went into what they did, I said ‘I want to be a part of this,’” LePage said in a recent interview at the Blaine House in Augusta. “I think they thought maybe I would show up and say a few words or something. But I wanted to do the whole trip.”
That trip from the Worcester Wreath Co. factory in Harrington to Arlington National Cemetery in suburban Washington, D.C., has become a national phenomenon.
Since 1992, the company has donated tens of thousands of Maine-made wreaths that are placed by volunteers on the gravestones of U.S. servicemen and women whose remains are laid to rest at Arlington.
In two decades, the event has grown from a small group of volunteers to a massive convoy of tractor-trailer trucks, Patriot Guard motorcycle riders and others.
This year, Maine’s first lady joined the Wreaths Across America convoy at Cheverus High School in Portland on Monday, Dec. 5. She hopped inside one of the trucks and braced herself for what she called “the trip of a lifetime.”
“There were just so many stories along the way,” LePage said, referring often to a journal she kept during her week on the road.
There was the woman at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., who had buried her son a few years back. Asked whether it was hard to visit her son at Arlington, the woman told LePage, “Not at all. He’s with his buddies.”
There was the boat in the Hudson River below the Tappan Zee Bridge just north of New York City that displayed an oversize U.S. flag as the convoy thundered by.
There were the dozens of elementary school children who stood out in the pouring rain cheering and chanting “U-S-A” as the wreath-filled trucks made one of their many stops.
And there were the countless little gestures — free meals, handshakes and salutes from gray-haired, steely-eyed veterans dressed in their old uniforms — that LePage said warmed her heart more and more as she neared Arlington.
“It was wonderful because there was nothing political about it,” said the first lady, whose husband, Gov. Paul LePage, has been at the forefront of a number of political battles in Maine in less than a year in office. “There was an overwhelming sense of patriotism. The whole thing became infectious.”
For part of the trip, Ann LePage even hopped on the back of a motorcycle driven by one of the Patriot Guard riders.
“He was playing country music,” LePage said when asked how she chose who to ride with. On a long trip, she said, good music is crucial.
Gov. LePage joined his wife shortly after the convoy arrived in Arlington on Friday, Dec. 9. They both took part in laying wreaths against the uniform white markers that spread for miles in perfect rows at the national cemetery.
Ann LePage said she was struck by the solemnity of the event, but there was more, something else she couldn’t quite explain.
“With everything going on in the country and the world, it gave me this sense that ‘Everything is going to be OK,’” she said.
First ladies often adopt causes that define their spouse’s terms. For some, it’s education. For others, it’s nutrition. For LePage, it has become military and veterans issues.
She has flown on a KC-135 out of the Maine Air National Guard refueling wing in Bangor to participate in a refueling mission. She hosts three military families once a month for dinner at the Blaine House. She recently gathered more than 100 women veterans for tea, the first event of its kind in the state.
She has no strong ties to the military, either in her family or in her husband’s family, but LePage said she feels strongly that veterans deserve the utmost respect and support.
“I honestly think it’s kind of un-American not to support the military and our veterans,” she said.
That unwavering support is something LePage shared with Morrill and Karen Worcester.
“They are so selfless about this,” she said. “It’s not about them at all.”
LePage said she was equally amazed by the fact that Worcester Wreath Co. employees and others go back to Arlington to pick up the wreaths. That trip gets much less fanfare, but it speaks to their dedication all the same, she said.
When she returned to Maine after her week on the road, LePage said she had a strong urge to keep that spirit going.
She also offered a promise: “As long as Paul is in office, I’ll keep making the trip.”