Hundreds of people stood in the chilly air of Omaha National Cemetery on Tuesday to honor a Vietnam veteran who died supposedly without any family.
Good Shepherd Funeral Home director Mike Hoy said he was initially told Stanley Stoltz had no living family when he died on Nov. 18. A funeral notice published in The World-Herald went viral, drawing support nationwide, including from CNN's Jake Tapper.
"There was some family that eventually came forward," Hoy said. "The outpouring of support has been great. It’s just an honor."
Before the funeral, a long line of cars backed up traffic into the cemetery.
Chaplain Roy Edwards told the crowd Tuesday afternoon that "this is the first time we've had this kind of crowd. ... Most get six to eight cars, 15 at most. This is hundreds."
Chaplain Roy Edwards: “This is the first time we’ve had this kind of crowd. This whole hill is full.“Most get 6-8 cars, 15 at most. This is hundreds.” pic.twitter.com/Opz4BOQdvu— Chris Peters (@_ChrisPeters) November 27, 2018
Stan Stoltz was born on May 29, 1945, and grew up on a farm in Curlew, Iowa, according to people who knew him. He had three brothers and a sister and friends in northwest Iowa and Bennington.
Those friends remember him as a hard worker and a typical farm boy.
"Stan was the kind of guy that could jump on any piece of equipment and run it," said former Bennington Mayor Bill Bohn, who lived a quarter-mile from Stoltz as a child and employed him later as a bricklayer.
Bohn said he thinks Stoltz was drafted into the Vietnam War. Friends don't remember him speaking about his time overseas.
When he returned, he worked for an International Harvester dealer in Emmetsburg, Iowa. He lost an eye shortly after returning from Vietnam, Bohn said.
After that, Stoltz moved to Bennington, where he married Pamela Muhleka in 1974. Pam died in 1984 from cancer.
"It messed him up pretty bad when she died," said Laurie Olsberg Shields, who grew up in Curlew with Stoltz and lived across the street from him in Bennington.
Stoltz moved back to Curlew, she said, remarried, then divorced. He never had any children.
While in Curlew, Stoltz looked after his mother until her passing. He spent some time in a nursing home after that, Bohn said, then returned to Bennington. He moved around and spent time in and out of nursing homes before his passing.
Since reading his funeral notice in the paper, Shields talked with former classmates and encouraged them to attend the funeral.
“It’s too bad it didn’t happen sooner when he was living that people reached out to him,” she said. “It sounds like he could have used a friend.”
But on Tuesday, friends, family and strangers flocked to the Omaha National Cemetery to celebrate Stoltz.
Dennis Schissel, president of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, said funerals for Vietnam veterans typically draw between 150 and 200 people, with crowds mostly made up of veterans.
“We come together for something like this,” he said, “He was one of us at this time.”
Mary Rosenthal said she tries to attend the interment of every indigent veteran and those who have little to no known family. She began doing so in May 2017 when she attended the interment of U.S. Marine Donald Stark, a Vietnam veteran who died at 68 with no known family.
“It kind of got me thinking there’s got to be more than him out there,” she said. “So I got the list of veterans that the Omaha National Cemetery believes don’t have anybody in the area or anybody at all.”
Each Memorial Day, Rosenthal puts out a call on social media for locals to adopt the gravesites of those veterans with little to no known family. The first year, 2017, that list was nine people long. This year it was 14.
“It’s just something I did because I thought it should be done,” she said. “If somebody can put flowers on somebody who doesn’t have anybody to do that, it’s a cool project.”