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Keokuk looks to improve road to Iowa’s only national cemetery

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Rich Egger
The city unveiled the Road of Honor designation during a ceremony on Thursday, June 30. “The name of it is Road of Honor but the theme is about respect,” said Vietnam veteran Bill Smith (on the far right in the photo).

Local veterans and other residents of Keokuk think the national cemetery in town should be better known. They also believe the road leading to the burial ground should be in better shape.

Bill Smith of Keokuk said they formed a committee that came up with the idea of holding Tours of Honor. He said they will be similar to Honor Flights.

“We’ll invite veterans and their spouses and their family to come, and we’ll give them a tour, and then we’re going to have a dinner of honor for them afterwards at the American Legion,” he said.

Smith said they sent invitations to American Legions and VFWs across the state. They did not know what to expect and were pleasantly surprised when 75 people showed up for their initial tour.

He said they used school district buses for the tour of the cemetery and other historic sites around town.

“We have to respect all national cemeteries across the United States. They don’t get enough recognition, including ours,” Smith said.

“It’s about time that people start realizing that sites like this exist, the history behind it, and the benefits it provides as well.”

Keokuk National Cemetery is the only national cemetery in Iowa, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Rich Egger
Mayor Kathie Mahoney and Bill Smith at the entrance to Keokuk National Cemetery.

It’s not a smooth road to the cemetery

South 18th Street has been patched up through the years but has never received a proper resurfacing. That’s resulted in a rough and tumble ride to the cemetery that will test a vehicle’s suspension system.

Kathie Mahoney took note as she checked out the condition of streets while she campaigned for mayor last fall.

“And when I came up 18th Street and got right here I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. This is embarrassing to our community and embarrassing to our veterans and embarrassing to the families of people that are there.’ And so that was why I chose that as the street I would like to see fixed,” she said.

While you can find plenty of streets in town in need of work - just as you can in many communities – Mahoney felt this one had to be a priority.

“This one is different. This is to honor our veterans and we just have to make it happen,” she said.

Mahoney said the cemetery itself is pristine. Now they need to improve the street leading to it.

Their first step is symbolic. The city gave South 18th Street the honorary designation of the Road of Honor, with red, white, and blue signs noting the designation.

Mahoney said they will seek funding through the federal and state governments to repair the Road of Honor.

“Because it’s a road that starts on a state highway and ends in a federal cemetery, we feel that it should be a federally funded program like the roads that are done at Arlington Cemetery. We feel like this road is no different,” Mahoney said.

She said they’ve talked about forming a foundation but won’t do that until they have exhausted the federal and state funding possibilities.

The U.S. House appropriations committee has approved $960,000 for the project. But Mahoney said it’s a $3.2 million project. She said they will redo the street, the structure underneath, the sidewalks, make it ADA compliant, and do sewer separation work.

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Rich Egger
Keokuk National Cemetery

Making steps forward

Smith said he is hopeful, but adds he has no idea how long it will take to accomplish their goals.

“As long as you keep trying, you make steps forward, you’re making progress. That’s the only answer I can give you,” he said.

“But I am now 75 years old. I want this damn street paved by the time I’m 80.”

Smith is urging people to push federal and state politicians to come up with the funding. He said committee members will also keep spreading the word about Keokuk National Cemetery and the Road of Honor.

Smith said it’s about showing respect for those who served their country.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.