Imagine living in Arlington National Cemetery, where every street and lane is a veritable history lesson. Some are named for American presidents and others for military leaders from every war – all buttressed by row upon row of graves and their markers, constant reminders of the sacrifices necessary to sustain America’s democracy.
“It was all I knew,” explained Jack Metzler, 71, whose father, John Charles Metzler Sr., was superintendent of Arlington from 1951 to 1972. “We lived at the superintendent’s lodge on the cemetery grounds near the Fort Myer gate, and, early in my life, my father drilled into us that whatever we did was a reflection on him. No further discussion.”
As youngsters, Jack and his friends played in the cemetery, often stopping to watch the pageantry of a military funeral or interment service or listen to the air-cracking military salutes or the plaintive and familiar tones of a bugler’s “Taps.”
“Our friends were the kids whose folks were stationed at Fort Myer, about a half-mile walk from my house,” Jack remembered. “My brother and I would make friends, and then, in a few years, they’d move away and new kids would arrive and we’d make friends again. It became routine. I was outgoing, transparent – probably because those skills were necessary. That was our world.”
Another aspect of the youngster’s life at Arlington was his father’s work schedule.
“We’d see him at breakfast. Sometimes, especially during the summer, we’d go to the administrative offices, which were about 100 yards away from our home. We’d peek in the windows. He directed a staff of 300, so sometimes he wouldn’t get home before our bedtime.
“In winter, we’d sled down the hill from the Custis-Lee Mansion, but our sledding ended on November 22nd, 1963.”
The President has been shot.
In Jack’s memory, his sledding hill wasn’t the only thing that was changed by what happened in Dallas that afternoon in 1963. He remembered the day of the assassination. He was in high school, in bookkeeping class. Out of nowhere, the school’s public address system gouged into the lull of that otherwise uneventful November afternoon.
“The president has been shot,” the principal’s voice trembled.
“We were horrified. The principal had connected the public address system to a TV broadcast but only for a short time because the administration decided on early dismissal. Still trying to understand what had just happened, we piled into the school bus, rode up to Fort Myer and walked home,” Jack said.
“As I entered the cemetery, Dad, somber-faced, was coming out of his office. I asked him, ‘Did you hear the news?’ Dad nodded. ‘Would the president be buried here?’ Dad mumbled something about the Kennedy family having plots in Massachusetts,” he said.
He also remembered his dad having plans to visit family in New York that weekend, but “at dinner, he told us he had canceled them.”
Superintendent Metzler was soon summoned to the White House for a meeting that would last all Friday night and into Saturday afternoon.
“Dad called home, asking Mom to bring his topcoat and hat to Lee Mansion Hill. I was elected and found my dad, standing with a small group of people. Dad took the hat and coat and told me to go back home. I knew he was involved in serious business. They were looking for an appropriate gravesite for the president,” Jack said.
“My dad was always cool, calm and collected,” he added. “When he said something, there was no discussion. He was obviously cold, standing out on the windy hill, but I knew there were times when you could hang around, times when you couldn’t. I had no idea all that was involved in those meetings – some things I wouldn’t know until he passed away.”
More than 1 million mourners lined the parade route in Washington, D.C., and an estimated 175 million watched the ceremonies on television around the world. Three years after his interment, visitors to see his grave numbered 7 million.
After JFK’s assassination, security across Washington, D.C., and, more specifically, at Fort Myer and Arlington, became more intense.
“We had to walk farther to play sports at the base because increased security and closure of the gates near our home almost doubled the time it took for us to meet up with friends,” Metzler remembered. “Our sledding hill would be no more after the president’s grave was moved to a more accessible final resting place in 1967. It was at the bottom of the popular sledding site.
“I saw an entire country grieve and people wishing to pay their respects to the Kennedy gravesites – JFK, his brother Bobby, who died in 1968, and later his wife, Jackie, in 1994. They came in such numbers that a new, larger visitors’ center was completed in 1990,” Jack said.
As one might imagine, living at Arlington provided ample opportunity for young Jack to become familiar with military protocol. He recalled the first funeral in his memory, when he was 6, for Jonathan Wainwright, the U.S. Army general and hero of Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines during World War II.
“The ceremony was held only a few graves away from our front door. It was a huge funeral. When the honor guard fired three volleys, I noticed they left the brass shell casings on the grass, so after the funeral was over I walked over and picked them up,” Jack remembered. “On my way home, people were offering me money for the shells – so many that I ran out, so I went to the house, where I had more shells in my room. On the way back, my dad stopped me and introduced me to the chaplain. Of course, he wanted me to shake hands, and that’s when he noticed the shells I had stuffed into my pockets.
“That ended my entrepreneurial venture,” Jack said. “I was getting any loose change for the spent shells, back then a nickel would buy an ice-cold soda in the vending machine in the cemetery’s office.”
On Saturdays, Jack and his older brother walked the two miles to the south part of the Army reservation closest to the Pentagon to go to movies on the base. For 15 cents, they could see a double feature and cartoons.
“We knew it was a long walk to get there, but we were young, everybody was safe, we were on a military base and there was never a problem. We felt lucky,” he said.
His career in cemetery management took him, his wife and, later, their family from small, minimally-active national cemeteries to larger more active and national cemeteries. Like his father, he was a government employee for a majority of his career – and, like his father, Metzler ran a tight ship.
After graduating from high school in 1966, the junior Metzler had two choices: Join the military or go to college.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he confessed. “I didn’t see myself going to college, so I ended up at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for basic training and then on to Fort Rucker for advanced training in helicopter maintenance and to Fort Campbell to form a new unit – and from there to Bien Hoa, Vietnam.”
He was there a year, where he was a helicopter crew chief with the 190th Assault Helicopter Company. As part of the remaining three years of his military obligation, Metzler was stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, about 12 miles from Arlington.
“I can credit my dad with much of my approach to people and how I manage them,” he said. “He walked the cemetery often, checking the details, including how the garbage cans looked. Down to the simplest detail, he wanted to make certain visitors and mourners could focus on why they were there with no distractions.”
Thinking his relocations had come to an end with a headquarters administrative assignment, Metzler and his family settled into a carefully-selected neighborhood, where their children made close friends and the Metzler family finally had a permanent home – until the phone call came.
“They wanted me to come to Arlington,” Metzler said.
Uprooting his family; leaving home and friends behind in Pennsylvania; teenagers in high school. The timing couldn’t have been worse, so he turned down the offer.
The phone rang again several days later. His skills and experience were needed, he was told.
“After so many years with the government, I had hoped I could stay in administration until retirement, and I had grown up knowing what a superintendent had to go through at Arlington. I had no intention of accepting the job – until I did after receiving more calls,” he remembered.
Returning to the days of his youth, Metzler saw a growing number of interments coming with the baby boomer generation and veterans from two additional wars.
“The cemetery was conducting around 13 funerals each day, funding was stagnant and, looking ahead, the cemetery was running out of space,” he said.
Metzler also recognized that a larger percentage of services were local – within 100 miles of the cemetery – because of the nearby military bases and retirees choosing to spend their last years in the D.C. area. The challenges, he knew, would continue to grow.
In 2007, he implemented the Millennium Project, a $35-million expansion plan to begin converting 40 acres of unused space and four acres of maintenance property into an additional 26,000 graves and 5,000 inurnment spaces. This expanded the cemetery’s physical boundaries for the first time since the 1960s.
Metzler saw the Millennium Project as a strong way to conclude his 41-plus-year career in cemetery service with the government.
“Our retirement plans had been in the works for months because I wasn’t getting any younger, and my wife and I were looking forward to moving back to our home in Pennsylvania as well as spending more time with our children and grandchildren at the Jersey shore, where our family had vacationed for the past 30 years,” he said.
The veteran superintendent also knew his trimmed-down staff – from 145 to approximately 100 – wouldn’t be able to accommodate the current number of cases in addition to the projected increase. As workloads grew, he tasked the cemetery’s management team to update and install badly-needed burial management technology to streamline and enhance the recordkeeping and accounting processes as well as the additional demands of day-to-day operations. All of these necessary improvements stressed the budget.
As Metzler began making these needed changes, the cemetery was steadily moving into the vortex of a perfect storm ignited by a disgruntled employee’s allegations that would trigger intense scrutiny from the Pentagon.
Findings included lack of supervision of contractors involved in the expansion project and technology updates and, most glaring of all – and attracting the most media attention – marking and identifying interments in some of the older sections of the cemetery.
Like any perfect storm in the workplace, especially involving the government, finding someone to blame and punish takes priority over finding solutions and fixing problems. The resulting media firestorm left few survivors. Metzler’s pending retirement deflected much of the heat and allowed him to follow through with his personal plans. Now, eight years later, as he looks back, he does so with a great amount of pride in serving the families of thousands of veterans over the years.
“Working at Arlington, to me, was never just a job. Because I grew up there, because I watched my dad and because I took great personal pride in serving our country’s military, it was a way of life,” Metzler said. “Every day was different. Every day was an honor.”
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