Dennis Tumlin says he’ll never forget the last words his grandfather spoke to him as his life drew to an end.
Virgil Crane was born close to Chattanooga in 1925 and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II before returning home to work as a boilermaker for Tennessee Valley Authority.
Tumlin, a Realtor with Real Estate Partners in Chattanooga, says Crane wouldn’t talk about his military service during the war, other than to say he’d witnessed things no person should.
As Crane lingered in hospice care in 2016, he clasped Tumlin’s hands and said, “Hang tough.”
Tumlin strides across the rolling 121-acre expanse of Chattanooga National Cemetery on a chilly Saturday afternoon as he recalls his grandfather’s life and military service. With him are his wife, Angela, and their daughters, Chloe and Sadie.
There is not a dry eye among them.
As Tumlin walks, he carries a lush balsam fir wreath he and his family intend to lay on the gravestone of his grandfather once they find it. Adorned with a handtied red bow, the wreath will serve as an object of honor and remembrance.
The Tumlin family is one of many taking part in National Wreaths Across America Day, observed annually Dec. 17.
As the foursome makes its way across Chattanooga National Cemetery, where 49,000 individuals (including veterans, as well as some of their spouses and underage children) are buried, grateful masses are laying wreaths in Arlington National Cemetery and more than 3,400 other locations in every U.S. state, at sea and abroad.
When the Tumlins arrive at a section of the cemetery for persons who died in 2016, Chloe and Sadie begin scanning the neat rows of white markers for Crane’s final resting place.
“He was the only grandad these girls knew,” Tumlin notes. “When he was in hospice care, he loved when they came to his home and prayed for him.”
“He was a kind and sweet man,” says Chloe, a freshman at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “And he was a good husband to nana Ruth.”
Other family members have placed wreaths on Crane’s gravestone but this is the first time Tumlin and his wife and children have participated.
He and his wife decided to take part when Darlene Brown, owner of Real Estate Partners, called for volunteers to assist with a companywide effort to help lay wreaths on the markers of “America’s fallen heroes.”
“We jumped at the chance to plug in,” Tumlin explains. “We have great respect for the men and women who serve in our military so we can enjoy the freedoms we have. And we want to instill that patriotic reverence in our children.
“It’s easy to get busy with everything that’s on your plate and not take time to remember those who sacrificed their lives for this country.”
Brown says she was compelled to raise money for Wreaths Across America and rally the troops at Real Estate Partners when she drove by the cemetery in December 2019 and saw a sea of green and red wreaths – as well as vast stretches of bare markers.
After learning how to become involved, Brown raised about $10,000 for the 2020 observance and close to $18,000 in 2021. This year, she raised $30,000 on the nose.
“The agents at Real Estate Partners donated money, as did some of our fellow Realtors from other companies, and Greater Chattanooga Realtors made a contribution,” Brown says.
“I also reached out to my friends on Facebook. I thought I’d raise a few hundred dollars, but my sphere gave nearly $6,000.”
Like the Tumlins, Brown has family buried at Chattanooga National Cemetery, including her father, Glen Goins, her brother, Randy Goins, and her in-laws, Gene and Ann Schimpf.
Brown says her brother and her husband’s mother died in 2022, making her observance of Wreaths Across America Day this year especially heart-rending.
After Tumlin’s daughters find the marker, the girls lay the wreath on their great-grandfather’s gravestone, which reads “Forever in our hearts.” The family then huddles together in the cold and prays.
Angela, a Realtor who leads the Tumlin Homes & Land Team at Real Estate Partners, fights through fresh tears to voice her admiration for Crane.
”He was a good example of a Christian husband and father,” she says. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for him because, even though we think our lives are hard, he endured things beyond anything we’ve encountered.”
Sadie, a freshman at Silverdale Baptist Academy, battles sniffles of her own as her father offers his final thoughts.
“We want our girls to understand his sacrifice. A lot of bad things are going on in the world, and we want them to understand what American means and pay tribute to those who made that possible.”
During the ceremony, volunteers at Chattanooga National Cemetery placed nearly 26,000 wreaths as they spoke the names etched into each marker, according to wreathsacrossamerica.org.
Afterward, Brown expressed gratitude for the people who had donated money and the fellow agents who had joined her in laying 60 of those wreaths.
“Thank you to our fellow Realtors, as well as our business partners, friends and clients, who donated alongside us,” Brown wrote on Facebook. “Chattanooga is full of special people.”