COLUMBIA — It had been four years, three moves and more dead ends than she could remember. But Capt. Zim Schwartze of the Columbia Police Department was still not ready to dispose of a tombstone gathering dust in her office.
John Richard King’s military marker dated 1977 had been found in January 2004 on the side of U.S. 63 near Interstate 70. But after four months with no success at finding any links to family in Boone County, King’s marker would have been tossed in the trash had it not been for Schwartze.
“I have a brother in the military, so I couldn’t get rid of it,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to throw it in the Dumpster.”
So the 111-pound marker stayed with Schwartze, moving to three offices with her. Finally, a few months ago, she called Detective Bob Brown, a friend at the Boone County Sheriff’s Department. Because he served in the aviation arm of the Navy during the Vietnam War, Brown was happy to have a go tracking down the family.
“I’m a veteran,” Brown said. “So, I’m not going to let something like that go by the bye.”
But after checking multiple computer databases, he, too, came up empty. In late March, he dropped off the marker at the Columbia Veterans of Foreign Wars, hoping people there might have more luck in finding a deceased veteran.
As Captain of the Guard at the VFW Post 280, Commander Skip Yates was in the peculiar position of having to decide what to do with the marker for King, a former U.S. Army private who had died more than 30 years ago. Yates checked with Veterans Affairs in Boone County, but none of the four John Richard Kings that turned up matched the dates on the marker.
Yates, a retired Navy aviator who had flown in Vietnam, thought the story of the lost tombstone would “die with him.” He was ready to bury it on his farm — but something just wouldn’t let him go through with it.
“I’m a veteran,” Yates said. “I couldn’t do it.”
Persistence pays off
Instead, he asked around at the next VFW meeting to see whether anyone had heard of John Richard King. While no one had, VFW Chaplain Jim Cunningham, who’s hobby is genealogy research, said he would try to locate King’s family. Cunningham served in World War II and the Korean War as a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy. He went to work trying to find who John Richard King was. It looked like the marker had been vandalized — it was chipped on two corners — and Cunningham felt an obligation to find where the stone had come from.
“I felt that something had to be done,” he said. “I didn’t want to destroy the stone. I thought if someone had stolen the marker, we need to get it back home.”
Cunningham called the Office of the Missouri Adjutant General, which keeps records on military enlistments and discharges. He found that King had grown up in Sullivan County and served three months in the Army during the Korean War, before being honorably discharged after a heart attack.
Cunningham contacted the Sullivan County Clerk, who in turn told a genealogy expert there about the lost veteran. After a couple weeks, Cunningham received an e-mail from the expert with the names and numbers of King’s surviving family.
At last, it seemed, the marker mystery would be solved. Cunningham placed a call to John Richard King’s brother, J.D. King of Macon, and arranged for him to come pick up the marker at the VFW.
King didn’t even know the marker had been missing, but he drove to Columbia on June 6 and met Yates and Cunningham.
“I really appreciate Jim Cunningham’s work, because he made it his project to make sure that this stone got back to my brother’s family,” King said.
During the meeting, King thanked Yates for hanging onto the marker and Cunningham for his research. But a big question remained, and it remains still: How did the marker end up on the side of a road in Columbia?
This much is known:
When John Richard King died in 1977, he was buried in Clarence, about 70 miles north of Columbia, and a traditional tombstone is there. The specially ordered military marker, however, was never placed at King’s grave. Rather, because he had been an avid gardener, his wife, Sharon King, placed it in her garden.
When Sharon King died, her daughter, Michaelle Fohey, took the marker. It moved with her to Iowa, where she put it in her flower bed, and then back to Missouri, to Callaway County, 12 years ago. She intended to put it in another garden but never moved it from a shed on her farm.
“We had just lost track of it,” Fohey said. “I couldn’t believe my uncle came across it when we thought we had it.”
Today, Fohey has no idea how the gray stone marker was taken from her farm. But it is now fixed securely at her father’s grave in Clarence; King’s three brothers, J.D., Joe and Harry, placed the marker Saturday with a short prayer and an informal service. “JOHN RICHARD KING,” the marker states. “PVT US ARMY KOREA 1933 1977.”
“My dad had a great sense of humor,” Fohey said. “I think he would have enjoyed knowing that his military marker traveled so many miles before being placed at his grave.”
Without Schwartze’s sense that she couldn’t toss the marker into a dumpster and without the persistence of Brown, Yates and Cunningham, the family might have never known what happened to the marker.
“They were Americans who served their country,” Yates said, “and that’s who we serve.”