Michael Cheek makes the same drive down US-1 in Melbourne just about every day.
But two weeks before Christmas in 2018 something made him pull into the J.N. Tucker Memorial Cemetery. It was a detour that still affects him.
“Something pulled me back there for a reason,” Cheek said, remembering the day he drove to the back of the cemetery and found gravesites abandoned and in disrepair.
“You could barely tell anything was there. It was overgrown. But I saw two white things,” Cheek remembers.
Cheek said he used his bare hands to pull back vines and downed tree branches. That’s when he discovered what he was looking at were the headstones of two military men buried side by side.
“Now I’m angry,” Cheek remembers.
Cheek turned that anger into change. He returned with friends, family and volunteers to clean and restore the forgotten and neglected cemetery. The experience motivated him to team up with friend, Bruce Rothschild, and form Veteran Cemetery Restorations Inc.
“I’m just the founder, he’s the PR guy,” Cheek laughs, referring to his friend and partner.
Cheek served in the Army from 1975-1980. He says seeing the gravesites in such terrible condition gave him the idea to find other neglected cemeteries where veterans are buried and help clean them as well.
The two were surprised when they got a call about another one just five miles away.
“Weeds, grass, headstones falling over,” Rothschilds said, as he described the scene at J.S Stone Community Cemetery off Grant Street in Melbourne.
The African American cemetery established in 1919 had fallen into disrepair as well, 157 veterans are buried there.
“Every one of these headstones have been cleaned and raised out of the ground because they were literally sinking out of view,” Rothschild said, as he walked along the dirt access road. The space is now orderly and clean.
The J.S Stone Cemetery is maintained by the community and the family members of those buried there. Sharon Lucas is the cemetery custodian. Her grandfather, John Stone, originally donated the property so that African Americans in the area would have a cemetery of their own.
“Back in the day they would have a cemetery day and people from the community would come out and clean. But the younger people, they don’t,” Stone said.
When Stone heard about the work Veterans Cemetery Restorations Inc. was doing nearby, she gave them a call.
“We do our best to try to keep it looking nice, especially since the Veterans Restoration guys came out. They did a wonderful job.”
Rothschild says that between the two Brevard County cemeteries, Veterans Cemetery Restorations Inc. and their volunteers have removed 20 tons of trash and debris.
The clean-up at J.S Stone happened earlier this year. Rothschild returned last week, along with Rosemarie Yeary, 1st Vice Commander of American Legion 163, to replace the military flags at the cemetery entrance.
Cheek has been dealing with health issues and couldn’t make it. The group wanted to recognize him with the News 6 Getting Results Award.
“Michael is a very unassuming man but he’s a force of nature,” Yeary said. “He’s a veteran himself but he cares so much about other veterans as well.”
“Michael started all this,” Rothschild continued. “It’s taken a village, but it started with one man and it’s one man who felt that so much was wrong for these veterans.”
Cheek said he hopes to be healthy enough to help with the next project but he’s proud of what’s already been accomplished.
“It’s more of an honor to me to give back to the veterans,” he said.
News 6 wants to recognize the people in Central Florida who are Getting Results and making a difference in our community.
[SUBMIT NOMINATION: Getting Results Award]