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Sullivan South AFROTC cadets, instructor set veteran's grave marker

Rick Wagner • Feb 25, 2020 at 9:00 AM

ROGERSVILLE — An Air Force veteran's grave maker has been designed, made and set in the ground, thanks to his daughter, the American Legion and the Sullivan South Air Force Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.

The daughter is Indian Springs Elementary music teacher Sherry Gillum, a former Sullivan North High School band director. Her father is the late Bobby Ray Stitt.

“Before proud Air Force veteran Bobby Ray Stitt passed, he left a few instructions for his daughter: donate his extensive taxidermy collection to Bays Mountain Park and find the family cemetery to place his remains next to his mother and baby brother,” Gillium wrote in a news release. 

"I could never get an exact address from him on the location of the cemetery," Gillum said, "only that it was on Carters Valley Road next to a pink brick house! Carters Valley extends through three cities. It took me two weeks just to find it in (the) Rogersville (area), knocking on strangers' doors, researching old family obituaries and getting some help from the staff at Oak Hill Funeral Home who were incredible at helping me from the very start."

After the cemetery near Surgoinsville was located, Gillum said she found herself faced with the realization that a “family” cemetery meant all arrangements were to be done by the family, including setting the stone. Not having other family members left alive to help, once the 200-pound granite stone she designed was delivered from the American Legion, she had a mission to honor her father's final wishes.

She asked fellow Sullivan County physical education teacher and coach Travis Rasnake his opinion on asking the AFJROTC. He immediately contacted Air Force JROTC Instructor and Master Sgt. Don Shawver at Sullivan South High. Gillum said Shawver, nicknamed “Sarge,” reached out to her and — although he had never planted a stone before — he did not hesitate once he learned Stitt was an Air Force veteran.

Two of the cadets who volunteered to give up a Friday afternoon are senior Kurtis Hartgrove, who has already enlisted in the Air Force upon graduation from South, and sophomore Adam Bays.

After several reschedule dates due to weather, Shawver, Gillum and the two cadets met at the cemetery the afternoon of Feb. 21. Although the ground was soft with all the rain, the rocky soil was a challenge. With intensive labor, and prior research conducted by Shawver on planting a stone, the memorial was perfectly placed exactly where Gillum’s father had wanted.

However, the recent heavy rain also caused their truck to get stuck in the mud. "Daddy never DID want me to leave,” Gillum said she joked. After numerous pushing and spinning trials, a cousin down the street lent a hand with his 4-wheel cart and the four-man, one-woman team extracted the truck.

“This was like trying to drive on axle grease,” Shawver said.

However, Gillum said the cadets remained positive throughout the setbacks. At the end of it all, she said emotional hugs from her and a trip to Hardee's were all they would accept in thanks. Gillum also said that  "although we are often looked upon as the country bumpkins of the area, the Sullivan County Schools 'family' takes care of each other.”

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