Some prominent memorials to Nebraska's military veterans are in a sorry state.
The Blue Star Memorial Highway markers erected at seven roadside sites on Interstate 80 and U.S. Highway 83 are chipping and fading, the victims of 50 or more years of harsh Nebraska weather.
"They are now in need of 'facelifts,'" said retired Lt. Col. Mary L. Carlson, Blue Star representative for the Federated Garden Clubs of Nebraska, in a fundraising letter. "(I) have a deep heartfelt need to undertake a project to preserve and restore these Memorials ... so they will stand strong for another 50 years."
Now the Vietnam and Gulf War-era Army nurse is getting her wish. Tom Stelling, a Navy veteran from Daytona Beach, Florida, is in Nebraska this week, stripping and repainting the seven signs.
He started Monday with a sign at the Melia Hill rest area on westbound I-80 between Gretna and the Platte River, with plans to refurbish additional markers at Milford/Blue River, Grand Island, Brady and Ogallala. He will finish off with two signs on U.S. 83 (a north/south highway that runs through McCook, North Platte and Valentine), one near the South Dakota border and the other near the Kansas line.
The Garden Clubs have installed hundreds of the signs across the country since starting the program in 1945 to honor World War II veterans, Carlson said. There are 14 markers in Nebraska. The seven being refurbished are the oldest, dating as far back as 1950.
A longtime member of Omaha's Sunset Hills Garden Club, Carlson became the state's Blue Star representative two years ago. She inspected all the signs and made it her mission to restore the older ones.
"They were flaking and fading. They just appeared old," Carlson said.
That's where Stelling comes in. The now-retired newspaper press operator started a side business 15 years ago restoring faded and weathered tombstones.
It began with an effort to clean his own father's headstone. He spent several years developing a paint that would go on smoothly and stand up to elements.
Stelling's success led him to try restoring a Blue Star marker near his home in Florida. He figured he could keep an eye on it and see how it held up - even in an area baked by year-round sun and occasionally slammed by hurricanes.
His plan worked.
"It still looks as good as the day I painted it," he said.
Stelling persuaded more Garden Clubs in Florida to use his services and started a subsidiary business called Historical Markers Restoration.
Restoring Blue Star markers is special to him because of his own two years of Navy service in the early 1970s, Stelling said, adding that he charges just enough to cover his travel and paint costs - currently about $800 each.
Most of his work has been in the Southeast, especially Florida and Georgia. But twice a year Stelling, 70, his wife, Debbie, and their dog, a boxer named Banjo, head out on the road to restore signs farther down the road.
"We get a big fifth-wheel (camping trailer), and we go all over the country," Stelling said. "I love doing it. I can't sit still."
On Monday morning, he was at Melia Hill by 6 a.m. to start the restoration work on the Blue Star marker that sits just outside the restroom building.
First, Stelling strips the sign to bare metal, then applies a bonding agent to make the paint stick. He sprays the entire sign with a dark green background paint - four coats, to cover it from every angle.
Then he paints the blue star and the gold lettering by hand. Finally he sprays on a clear coating to preserve it.
The whole process takes about eight hours, and everything is quick-drying. The wind blew and the skies looked threatening as he worked Monday, but the rain fortunately did not fall.
"It can't be done in the rain," Stelling said. "But as long as I can spray that clear-coat, it can rain 10 minutes later, no problem."
Carlson came out to watch Stelling work. It was the culmination of two years of hard work and fundraising. Garden Clubs contributed part of the $5,600 restoration cost, as did American Legion and VFW posts, and the Marine Corps League.
"This is exciting!" she said. "My mission now is to educate the public. Most people don't know what the blue star stands for."