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Sampson becomes first veterans cemetery in New York State

It took 10 years, but Seneca County’s hope of having the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery selected as the state’s first official veterans cemetery became reality last week.

State officials and the governor’s office made the announcement Monday, May 26.

No one was happier with the news than former Assemblyman and State Sen. Mike Nozzolio of Fayette, who represented the county for more than 30 years.

“This is a great day for the people of New York state, the Finger Lakes region, Seneca County and for all veterans across our state and nation,” Nozzolio said Monday.

He got state funding in 2011 to use a portion of Sampson State Park off Route 96A in Romulus for a veterans cemetery. Seneca County was convinced to pay for operating it while the campaign to have it become the state veterans cemetery was waged. State grants paid for capital improvements, following national veterans cemetery standards.

Nozzolio agreed to serve as chairman of the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery Citizens Committee after he left public office. He said he was approached by the late Steve Bull of Seneca Falls, who was trained by the Navy at Sampson, with the idea of a veterans cemetery on the south end of Sampson.

That was in the mid-1990s when Bull headed a group called Sampson Salts, a Sampson alumni group. “Steve asked me to carry the ball and make it happen. I agreed it was an appropriate idea and went to work,” Nozzolio said.

He said there were many obstacles to overcome. Those included the fact that Sampson was not close to a major metropolitan area and a “myriad” of bureaucratic snags.

“But little by little, we overcame them. We followed national veterans cemetery guidelines from the start to be ready for this moment and it paid off. We were a unanimous selection from about a dozen applicants for the honor,” Nozzolio said.

He predicts it will be a “seamless” transition from a county run to a state veterans cemetery. The next step will be applying to the Veterans Administration by July for inclusion in the national veterans cemetery system.

“After over two and a half decades of perseverance, hard work, dedication and commitment to our cause, we are extremely pleased and grateful to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Site Selection Committee he designated for the unanimous selection of the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery as the first New York State Veterans Cemetery,” Nozzolio said in a release Monday.

The 162-acre cemetery has 799 veterans and dependents buried there. The operation of the cemetery was assigned to the county Economic Development Corporation and William Yale, a Navy veteran, was hired as cemetery director.

Nozzolio said the citizen’s committee “was pleased to work with a great team that put together a winning proposal for Sampson” and “to create a permanent resting place of honor for our veterans in a magnificently beautiful setting located on hallowed ground where hundreds of thousands of sailors and airmen prepared for battle to defend liberty and freedom throughout the world.”

Sampson was the location of Sampson Naval Training Station during World War II and then Sampson Air Force Base during the Korean War period. The property was acquired by the state in 1960 and has been a state park for decades.

Nozzolio noted that Seneca County submitted a formal proposal to be the state’s veterans cemetery in March and was competing with 11 other proposals.

Sarah Davis, executive director of the county IDA and EDC, said the EDC “is thrilled by the news that Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery will be the first state veterans cemetery.”

“This is a momentous occasion for a community with such strong ties to the military and celebration of its veterans,” Davis said. “We are proud to have been able to keep the cemetery operating over the past decade and look forward to the recognition this news will bring to our county.”

Other local military ties to the county are the location of the former Seneca Amy Depot in Romulus from 1941 to 2000 and the designation by Congress of Waterloo as the Birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Hayssen, R-Varick, said thanks should start with the Sampson Salts for proposing the veterans cemetery idea to Nozzolio. “From there, Sen. Nozzolio led and took it all the way to the finish line,” he said.

He said the Supervisors also supported the cemetery idea, providing funding to operate and maintain the cemetery as if it was already a national veterans cemetery. He said the IDA also stepped up and took over the day to day operations.

“Now we are ready to show off, with pride, our soon-to-be state veterans cemetery,” Hayssen said.

Yale said he watched the announcement on the state VA website. “We are, of course, very happy with the selection. We have been preparing for this for ten years now. Although we didn’t know it would take this long, it was well worth the wait,” Yale said.

He said many people deserve credit.

“Sampson has a rich military history of service to the nation. We continue that tradition at Sampson now as the first state veterans cemetery. It is an honor to be selected and we look forward to continuing to provide a resting place for our nation’s heroes for many years to come,” he said.

Statements of happiness with the decision also were made by Nozzolio’s successor, State Sen. Pam Helming of Canandaigua, and Assemblymen Jeff Gallahan, R-Manchester, and Phil Palmesano, R-Corning.

Sampson Cemetery moves to new level

By Mike Cutillo, Finger Lakes Times

As holidays go, Memorial Day is certainly not one for gifts, unless it’s a bouquet of vibrant flowers or an American flag placed respectfully on a veteran’s grave.

Meant to be a solemn and somber commemoration — a word I like better than holiday in this case — it was originally called Decoration Day and first widely observed in 1868 to recall the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. Since then, it has grown to become a remembrance for all men and women who died in the service of our country, or who served our nation and have since passed away.

For Memorial Day 2021, however, the Finger Lakes region has, indeed, received a very special gift.

On Monday, word came out of Albany that Seneca County’s Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery had been selected as New York’s very first state veterans cemetery.

This is a big deal, a very big deal. And an incredible feather in the region’s cap.

Mike Nozzolio — retired area lawmaker and Mynderse Academy grad — deserves kudos for dedicating nearly 2½ decades to this pursuit. It began, simply, with creation of the Sampson veterans cemetery, which opened in 2011 on the grounds off Route 96A in Romulus that used to be Sampson Air Force Base and Sampson Naval Training Station.

Others deserve praise as well, especially members of the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery Citizens Committee, and folks like Bill Yale, director of the current Sampson cemetery. Nozzolio, rightly, dishes out recognition to all of them in his “Guest” column that appears on today’s front page.

But Mike, always a staunch advocate for his beloved Finger Lakes, has been the driving force. A huge baseball fan, he also told me he took a page out of the baseball movie “Field of Dreams” when planning the Sampson cemetery — you know, “If you build it, they will come.”

With a goal in mind of someday having it eligible as a state veterans cemetery, Sampson was built to the exacting specs of the National Cemetery Administration’s standards.

“We wanted to do everything just right,” Nozzolio said in a phone call Monday morning, “so that when the time came, we would be able to say, ‘We’re ready to take it to the next level.’”

Sampson was among a dozen proposed sites for the state cemetery and had these pluses going for it: among the other 11, it serves the largest veteran population within a 75-mile radius (over 130,000 vets); it currently has 799 heroes and their family members interred there, but has room for 6,000 gravesites on its present 15 acres; all told, however, it has the capacity for 80,000 gravesites on 162 acres; it is already open and running and being maintained by Seneca County, which will transfer ownership to the state.

In a state where even the most mundane of topics can take months, sometimes years, of deliberations, this one was a slam dunk, if I may mix sports methaphors.
Nozzolio was prescient. They built it, and the state came.
There remains one more hurdle to clear — the state Division of Veterans’ Services now must apply for federal approval and funding to the National Cemetery Administration. Again, however, because Sampson was built to NCA criteria, it is not expected to be a difficult approval process.
I don’t have any relatives whose final resting place is Sampson, though I have dozens who served, including two who died in combat. I have friends and relatives of friends, however, who are interred there, so I try to visit a couple of times a year. The serenity and the reverence of the grounds are profound. The dignity these true
American heroes are accorded and thoughts of their immense sacrifices can move you to tears.

Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery was indeed done right. And now this extraordinarily special Field of Dreams is ready to move to the next level.

A special Memorial Day

By Mike Nozzolio

The Finger Lakes region for as long as I can remember has given appropriate honor to our veterans, and taken Memorial Day ceremonies seriously and respectfully. Memorial Day is much more than the beginning of summer, but rather a time to pause and give honor to those who shed their blood for our freedoms.

In part this heritage stems from the community of Waterloo being the nationally recognized birthplace of Memorial Day. But our region’s gratitude to our Nation’s veterans goes far beyond a single day and ceremony, and I’m honored to report that this Memorial Day brings special recognition and responsibility that again sets our region apart. To add to being the designated birthplace, our region is now a designated resting place of honor as the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery has been selected this week to be the very first New York State Veterans Cemetery in the National Cemetery system.

When the late Steve Bull, who for decades operated a local pharmacy in Seneca Falls, was a veteran of World War II, trained at the Sampson Naval Base, and then headed the Sampson SALTS alumni group asked me to establish a veterans cemetery on the site of the former base I welcomed the challenge, but had no idea it would require a commitment of over two and a half decades to achieve.

We all agreed the project was extremely meritorious. The hundreds of thousands of sailors and airmen who trained at the Sampson Naval and Air Force bases deserved the appropriate honor of an eternal resting place in the magnificently beautiful setting along the eastern shore of Seneca Lake, directly adjacent to the Sampson State Park. But what was both worthy and logical became immediately challenged by complex federal and state policies that all weighed against establishing a veterans cemetery at Sampson.

From the very beginning of our efforts the veterans of the greater Finger Lakes region were steadfast in their support of the project. Unfortunately in the past a number of policy makers from Albany and Washington did not share our enthusiasm.

After years of pursuing conventional routes, all blocked for a variety of reasons, it became apparent that we must go forward and build the highest quality resting place of honor for our veterans, and if we were persistent, the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery would one day become a New York State Veterans Cemetery.

Through the years I encouraged Sampson supporters and anyone who would listen to keep pursing this objective and it will happen. In my capacity as a NY State Senator we enacted laws to transfer the land and require New York State to join the national cemetery system, as well as secure over $6 million to plan and prepare the site, construct interior roads, build the committal shelter, and renovate the base fire house into a beautiful space for funeral services.

Many others contributed their time and effort, such as volunteers lead by Skip Campbell that built restrooms in the chapel building. Cindy Campbell helped raise contributions for appropriate memorials. Veterans Rick Connors, Don Linborg and Carm Pascarella were outstanding early volunteers. The work of those supporters and the Seneca County IDA, were outstanding. The invaluable efforts of Seneca County Manager Mitch Rowe and the Sampson Veterans Cemetery Director Bill Yale always went above and beyond and kept our goal in focus. Eighteen months ago key members of the Seneca County Board of Supervisors, former Chair Bob Shipley and current Chair Bob Hayssen, asked me to serve as Chair of a Citizens Task Force. The Task Force was made up of veterans and other outstanding community members, and worked together to help design a first-class application, garner letters and resolutions of support and create a website and video link.

This week our dream was realized, with the David as the unanimous choice of Gov. Cuomo’s site selection committee to become New York state’s first veterans’ cemetery.

The Citizens Task Force members:

Mike Bowen, Menzo Case, Kenny Fellers, Linda Fellers, Joan Grela, Bob Hayssen, Rena Nessler, Robert Nye, Ken Padgett, Mitch Rowe, Bob Shipley, Mike Smith, Bruce Tuxhill, Jane Sessler Schaffer, Richard West, Bill Yale, Mike Nozzolio

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