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'We all come to help': After 17 years, an obscure Grand Rapids veteran is laid to rest outside Duluth

Duluth News-Tribune - 7/23/2022

Jul. 22—DULUTH — For nearly 17 years, Donald Wells' cremated remains sat in a Grand Rapids funeral home. On Friday afternoon, they were interred in a columbarium at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery.

At a ceremony there, complete with flyovers, Taps and flowers, about 100 people showed up to honor Wells, who was a private first class in the U.S. Army from Oct. 15, 1956 to Aug. 18, 1958, according to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. The West Duluth American Legion

posted about the service on Facebook

earlier this week, garnering widespread attention — a traffic jam of supporters' cars stretched from the cemetery parking lot and nearly spilled onto nearby Highway 53.

But no one there seemed to know the man himself or knew of anyone who might.

Wells was 70 when he died in 2005, but no friend, relative or legal representative apparently stepped forward to claim his remains, and none have been located. Wells'

obituary in the Grand Rapids Herald Review

only indicates that he died Nov. 1 of that year and that he did not want a funeral.

"Kind of like the unknown soldier, but with a name," Mike Stainbrook, a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, a nonprofit composed of people who can trace their lineage to veterans of the Revolutionary War, told the News Tribune shortly after the ceremony.

"When a situation like this happens to a military member, we all come to help," said Frank Layne, a veteran himself of the Vietnam War.

Of the 659 veterans whose remains are at the cemetery, Wells is the fourth who is unclaimed, according to Cory Johnson, the cemetery's administrator. Friday's ceremony, Johnson said, was a chance for people in the area to pay their respects.

"And speak for a veteran that doesn't have anybody to speak for them," he said.

Before Friday, Wells' remains were kept at Rowe Funeral Home about 90 minutes west of Duluth on Highway 2. Staff there maintain their own collection of unclaimed remains — deceased people who, for instance, weren't buried after a miscommunication among their surviving family members who themselves died before resolving it.

"People just think that we just dispose of them, and we don't do that," said Shelly Shuster, one of the funeral home's directors. "That is somebody's loved one."

Shuster said she's been able to find living family members of several of the funeral home's more permanent residents, so to speak, whose cremated remains sit in a fireproof cabinet in the basement. But she came up empty when she tried to do the same for Wells.

Wells' sister was his legal next of kin and she wanted him laid to rest at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul, Shuster said. But that was complicated by a

1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center

in St. Louis, Missouri, that destroyed millions of Army and Air Force discharge records. Wells' sister died before sorting it out, and no one else's name is on the funeral home's paperwork, Shuster said.

Knowing, though, that Wells was a veteran, Shuster contacted staff at the Duluth veterans cemetery.

"We worked together to get this gentleman laid to rest," Shuster said. "Him being a veteran, he doesn't need to be down here in my cabinets."


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