One by one, a 94-year-old Bemidji veteran is cleaning Minnesota’s headstones

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You could say that every day is Memorial Day for Luvern “Ike” Eickhoff.

The 94-year-old Korean War veteran spends his time and money cleaning headstones at cemeteries all around northwestern Minnesota, not just this month, but most of the year. He keeps a bevy of supplies in the rear of his vehicle, making sure to adhere to National Cemetery Administration procedures.

“You can harm the stone if you’re not doing it right,” Eickhoff said during a recent cleaning session at Bemidji’s Greenwood Cemetery. “I do it for the families and people who can’t get back to the cemetery.”

Eickhoff’s respect for cemeteries goes back to his childhood in tiny Graceton, Minn., which is located midway between Baudette and Warroad. His father cut grass in the Graceton Cemetery with a sickle bar behind a team of mules. In later years his mother spent some of her retirement money to put a fence around that same cemetery to prevent vandalism.

Eickhoff has cleaned dozens of gravestones at Greenwood over the years but also travels to cemeteries in Clearbrook, Warren, Hallock and Oslo, where his wife Avis is from. He is meticulous in his cleaning process, using water, brushes and hand-carved wooden scrapers, then finishing off each job with a coat of a special treatment called Spray & Forget. He buys all of the products himself.

“I don’t spend money on cigarettes or alcohol,” he said. “That’s for anybody else. I’ve never smoked and I’ve never drank.”

He also carries a supply of American flags to place on graves.

“If I come to a place where there’s a veteran buried and there’s no flag, I put one there,” Eickhoff said. “Veterans are important to me. They’ve given their lives.”

Luvern “Ike” Eickhoff keeps an array of cleaning supplies and American flags in the back of his vehicle. (Charley Gilbert / Bemidji Pioneer)

He nearly gave his own life in the Korean War.

After graduating from Williams High School, Ike moved to Bemidji and enrolled at Bemidji State College along with his twin brother, Loran. The twins were forwards on the Beaver basketball team. But during his sophomore year, Ike was drafted into the U.S. Army.

He was trained to be a radio operator in Morse code and spent nine months on an island off the coast of North Korea. The 22-year-old was put in charge of a group of guerilla fighters who were taken ashore for a week at a time to gather intelligence on the North Koreans. On one occasion, Eickhoff was the only survivor when the transport boat was hit by enemy fire.

“I lost at least 30 men during my time there,” he said.

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Eickhoff returned from the war and completed his studies at Bemidji State. He taught and coached basketball at Stephen, Minn., for seven years before joining the industrial technology faculty at the University of North Dakota. He earned a Ph.D. in research and evaluation at Iowa State. He retired after a 30-year career at UND. That gave him more time to spend with Avis and to tend to cemeteries.

Bill Batchelder, volunteer caretaker at Greenwood Cemetery, does not take Eickhoff’s contributions for granted.

“At his age, he has an absolute zest for life,” Batchelder said. “He has the same vigor for cemeteries that he had as a little boy. I’m just impressed with his health and his stamina. The (Greenwood) Cemetery Association is extremely appreciative of what he does.”

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