October, 2018 marks the 100th Anniversary of the deadliest flu epidemic in history – the Spanish Flu. It killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide and infected about 1/3 of the planet’s population. According to Dr. Kristin Watkins, a Colorado historian of infectious diseases, “I’ve only come across a small plaque at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska recognizing this history changing event, until I recently heard what’s going on in Barre, Vermont!”
A grandson of one of the victims, Brian Zecchinelli a Barre native began researching this pandemic just over 5 years ago. His grandfather Germinio died on October 10th in Barre. He was only 35 years old with a wife Ester and 2 small children – Elgio, age 4 (Brian’s Dad) and Yole, age 2. Nearly 200 people died in Barre alone during a 3 week period. There were funeral processions every day.
The Spanish Flu has often been referred to as the “double-killer” as the victims were often healthy individuals between the ages of 20 and 40. It not only killed the individual, but it often killed the hopes and dreams of their descendants. In the United States the “flu” killed over 600,000 people, more than all the U.S. combat war deaths in the 20th century combined.
When the Spanish Flu finally abated in New England at the end of October 1918, Boston Red Cross workers reported that the pandemic had left a good deal of social wreckage. Kevin Mazuzan, Vermont Red Cross Executive Director comments that, “Chapter leaders sought advice from divisional and national headquarters about whether to divert resources from families of WWI servicemen to families of influenza victims.”
Last year, Zecchinelli reached out to the Rock of Ages Corporation, a Vermont granite manufacturer very familiar with memorialization. He envisioned a granite bench recognizing the impact that the 1918 Spanish Flu had on the world, the United States and Vermont. “They clearly exceeded my expectations with the design of the memorial,” says Zecchinelli.
Officials at the Barre-based Hope Cemetery and the Vermont Granite Museum (VGM) also recognized the importance of helping this memorial project come to fruition. While the bench will be sited at Hope Cemetery, an exhibit at the VGM will tell more of the story. According to Scott McLaughlin PhD VGM Executive Director, “Visitors, tourists and students will be encouraged to visit both properties.”
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, who formerly was the Assistant Director General of WHO (World Health Organization) responsible for influenza and health security, indicated that, “I am proud that my hometown of Barre has made this extraordinary effort to remind the world about the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic and to commemorate the citizens of Barre who died. This event stands out in history, and continues to haunt those who know about it. It is still fueling efforts by many people around the world who are trying to find better ways to reduce the crippling impact of such outbreaks and pandemics. One meeting devoted to this challenge will be held soon in November by the National Academy of Medicine in Washington D.C. I will be really happy to tell them what is going on in Barre and that 1918 is remembered there. I hope more communities help all of us to remember history so we can be better off moving forward.”
On Friday, October 26th at 11:30 am, the long awaited 4-ton granite “Reflection Bench” will be dedicated on the grounds of Hope Cemetery in Barre and is open to the public. “We have erected monuments all across America and are proud to help out with this important memorial in the community where we all grew up,” states GCB Corporation’s President Matt Calcagni.
Local clergy will be present to offer remembrances and closure for all victims’ families in attendance. Following this short service, guests will be invited to attend a reception, catered by the Wayside Restaurant, Bakery & Creamery, at the Vermont Granite Museum where the permanent 1918 Spanish Flu exhibit will be unveiled.