Ritual lights up life for Graff family

December 03, 1998

Lee GraffBy MEG H. PARTINGTON / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

Lee Graff learned about luminaires from ground level at the age of 6.

Ten years ago, in preparation for the first memorial illumination at Antietam National Battlefield, she was pulled around the grounds on a sled by her brother Mike, then 12.

"I just remember riding on the sled and my brother telling me to drop one (luminaire)," says Lee, now 16 and a junior at Williamsport High School.

She, her brother and their parents, Susie and Kevin Graff, haven't missed the event since.

[cont. from lifestyle]

On Saturday, Dec. 5, the battlefield will host its 10th memorial illumination. From 6 p.m. to midnight, visitors can drive through the park to view the five miles of luminaires - lighted candles housed inside paper bags weighted by sand.


Each of the 23,110 glowing lights represents soldiers from the North and South who died or were wounded Sept. 17, 1862, on the battlefield during the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. A separate candle is lit at the site of the Sept. 14, 1997, Cornfield battle re-enactment in memory of Timothy Landacre of Bridgeport, W.Va., who died after suffering a heart attack during the dawn event at the 135th Commemoration of the Battle of Antietam.

"Each one of these candles represents a human being," says Georgene Charles, general chairman of the volunteers.

When the first illumination came about, Kevin Graff was an assistant Scoutmaster for a troop in Williamsport that got involved in the preparations. The illumination was postponed a day because of snow and bitter temperatures.

"They came as a support staff," Kevin Graff says of his family, who brought along everything warm they could think of, including hot chocolate and mittens for the volunteers.

The Graffs, of Fairplay, are involved in various aspects of the illumination and have worked through all sorts of weather. Lee remembers one year after a heavy rain, she donned boots and had to walk through the muddy fields to collect candles.

"She's helped any way and every way you can," Kevin Graff says.

In the weeks before the event, the Graffs and other volunteers help fill the bags with sand and candles, and load them in trailers to be stored until the big day. Around 6 a.m. the day of the event, they arrive at Antietam to prepare for the arrival of the volunteers, which number more than 1,000 this year.

"I'm in charge of pointing out on the map where they're supposed to be," says Lee.

At 3 p.m. the day of the illumination, the helpers - which include students, Boy and Girl Scouts, church and community groups and retired military personnel - begin lighting the candles, which burn for 12 hours. Kevin and Mike Graff drive around the park as troubleshooters.

The next day, the Graffs join a troop of volunteers who dump the sand out of the bags, then collect all the bags and remnants of candles for disposal.

"We felt obligated to help a little bit more because it was such a significant event," says Kevin Graff, 48. "We work whenever we're called."

"We've made a lot of friends. It's kind of a reunion for us," says Susie Graff, 51.

Lee views the illumination and its importance differently now than when she was younger.

"It's a little bit more serious now. When I was little, I didn't really know what it was all about," says Lee, who tries to recruit her friends to help. "I just tell them it may be cold, but it's for a good cause."

It's a cause she plans to stick with, just like her family.

"As long as it's going, I'll do it," Lee says.

related story: Annual battlefield illumination has become a holiday tradition

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