The pavilion at Sarasota National Cemetery was designed to hold 3,200 people for funerals that would be typical for well known individuals.
U.S. Army veteran Edward Pearson was not a well known person, but the 80-year-old’s funeral was standing room only on Tuesday as at least 4,000 people packed into the pavilion. The line of cars kept streaming into the cemetery and an hour into the service, hundreds more were still trying to get in to send the veteran off with honor.
“I started getting calls from all over the country and some from as far as Germany around 8 a.m. (Monday),” said cemetery volunteer Tina Beeler. “I haven’t seen this many people since this place was dedicated. The response has been phenomenal.”
There were veterans, retired veterans, active duty personnel in uniform, family of veterans, friends of veterans, students with teachers. All just wanted to pay their respect to a man they had never met.
“I’m a veteran and I’m here to pay my respect,” said Ron Young, from Port St. Lucie. “Whenever I see a veteran’s funeral and they don’t have family, I come to these. Not all are in the media like this one was and those are kind of light, but I’m here paying it forward.”
No one knew Pearson and though Tuesday’s farewell with fully military honors was to honor him, it was about so much more.
For some, it’s about the brotherhood or sisterhood. For others, it’s about the brothers who never came home or the warriors still missing in action today. Perhaps it’s for the hundreds of other veterans who don’t get noticed by the media who are laid to rest each day quietly and without fanfare.
For others, Tuesday’s tribute to Pearson came down to one thing — being proud to be an American and being proud of those who sacrifice to keep America free. That was the case for Patrick Roache, who drove in from Holiday on his day off of work.
“I thought it would be good as an American to show my appreciation for a service member,” Roache said.
Dori Fava got her first real taste of what the Bradenton and Sarasota communities are all about. Fava moved to Bradenton a week ago from Illinois and read about Pearson’s upcoming funeral.
“I haven’t even moved in yet,” Fava said. “But I’ve been with the American Legion Auxiliary in Illinois for the past nine years and I feel like it’s my duty to be here for him.”
According to his military discharge papers, Pearson served in the U.S. Army from 1962-1964 and after being honorably discharged went on to become an engineer. According to public records, Pearson worked for Marriott Hotel Services Inc.
The service was expected to begin at 12:30 p.m. but got started late because the funeral directors were stuck in the traffic that was still backed up to Interstate 75 with people trying to get into the cemetery five miles away. They were eventually escorted into the cemetery.
Though hot and humid — which had caused a couple of medical issues in the crowd — a strong, westerly wind stretched Old Glory out proudly and flying at half mast, she crisply flapped in the breeze. Taps began to play and hundreds of veterans snapped to attention as hands quickly rose in salute.
Typically an American flag is given to a family member with the words, “On behalf of a grateful nation.”
There was no family “member” for Pearson, but no one can say there was no family. There were his brothers, his sisters and his fellow Americans.
“I’m prior service and served two tours,” said Sean Page. “I wanted to send him off with some respect.”
And if the crowd could have heard Page, there would have been 4,000 heads nodding in agreement.
Indeed, there was plenty of that.