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NEVER A GUARANTEE: Leaders past and present reflect on evolution of Sampson Memorial Veterans Cemetery

Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery was simply at an advantage against others considered for status as New York’s first veterans cemetery. It had plentiful space, a long-standing record of strong management, as well as the backing of the local community. Despite how well-equipped the property was, throughout the process- leaders at all levels acknowledged that it was not a guarantee Sampson be selected.

Until Monday when a state committee voted unanimously to recommend Sampson as that first veterans cemetery for New York. The state was one of a few that did not own or operate a veterans cemetery- a distinction that state leaders wanted to address long before the pandemic. The National Cemetery Administration identified New York as a priority location for establishing a state veterans cemetery.

Sampson is a 162-acre site that’s location in the town of Romulus. It’s surrounded by Sampson State Park, Seneca Lake, and rural farmland on other sites. It’s located on what was previously the Sampson Naval Training Station and Sampson Air Force Base, where hundreds of thousands of Service Members were trained during World War II and the Korean War.

Officials said that its compliance with National Cemetery Administration standards was a big part of its selection. The initial 15 acres of the site contain 6,000 planned grave sites and columbarium niches. According to the RFI response, the Sampson cemetery’s Master Plan and Schematic Design for the cemetery allow for a phased approach, constructing seamless expansions as demand and need arise. The cemetery currently conducts approximately 300 interments per year, meaning the developed Phase One area will last approximately 20 years, after which additional sections of cemetery can be developed “at a minimal cost.” Once the full 162 acres are utilized, the cemetery will be able to accommodate approximately 80,000 grave sites, a recommendation report said.

It didn’t stop there, though.

“Because the Sampson cemetery was constructed in full compliance with National Cemetery Administration standards, there would be no cost to construct the cemetery and the State would not need to certify that it has 10 percent of the construction costs in matching funds, as is otherwise required for federal grant applications that require cemetery construction. The cemetery’s estimated annual operating costs are $133,000 based on the cemetery’s current operating budget. The Seneca RFI response also noted that the cemetery has benefitted from several local fund-raising efforts from local Veterans, foundations, businesses, and individuals. In the ten years the cemetery has existed, the Cemetery has raised over $166,688 in cash and equipment. The Sampson cemetery would be transferred to the State at no cost,” the report continued.

County Manager Mitch Rowe said it was a big moment for Seneca and veterans across the state. “Seneca County is honored to have been selected and extends its gratitude to Governor Cuomo, the Selection Committee and all those who have worked so hard over the years to make this important moment in time a reality. We look forward to working closely with New York to ensure a seamless transition and will remain honored stewards until that time arrives. The Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery is a very special place and we are so thankful that New York State has chosen it to be its first Veterans Cemetery,” he said.

Sen. Michael Nozzolio, who represented Seneca County for three decades in state Senate and led the Sampson effort on the legislative side in the early days of its inception said he had no idea just how long it would all take to come together. “When the late Steve Bull, who for decades operated a local pharmacy in Seneca Falls, was a veteran of World War II, had trained at the Sampson Naval Base, and was at the time the head of 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,” Nozzolio recalled. “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 to achieve 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.”

There were points in which Nozzolio and other local leaders wondered if the moment would ever come for Sampson and New York State.

“From the very beginning of our effort the veterans of our 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,” Nozzolio added. “After years of trying conventional routes, that all were blocked for a variety of reasons, it became apparent to me that we must build the highest quality resting place of honor for our veterans, and if we were persistent that in time the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery would be the first New York State Veterans Cemetery. Through the years I kept encouraging all Sampson supporters and anyone who would listen to keep pursuing this objective and we will make it happen,” he continued. “Not everyone believed in the cause, but many did. The great work of those many supporters, especially the Seneca County IDA, Seneca County Manager Mitch Rowe and the Sampson Veterans Cemetery Director Bill Yale helped to keep our goal in focus. It was an honor to work together with them for well over a decade.”

Nozzolio chaired the Citizens Task Force, which helped put together the application. That task force worked with County Manager Rowe, Yale, members of the Seneca County Board of Supervisors past-and-present, and other stakeholders. “The Task Force was made up of outstanding veterans and members of the region, and worked together to help put together a first class application, garner letters and resolutions of support and create a website and video linking from the application that resulted in the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery as the unanimous choice of Governor Cuomo’s site selection committee to become New York State’s first veterans’ cemetery,” he explained.

Former Seneca County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bob Shipley and Current Chairman Bob Hayssen were also part of that process- before, during, and after holding elected office. Nozzolio said the hard work that led to this moment was all part of a committment that everyone shared. The decision by New York State to choose Sampson also represents the long-term committment that Sampson will enjoy moving forward. “This important commitment to our veterans realizes our dream to create an eternal 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. Words are inadequate to express our happiness with the decision of the siting committee,” he added.

Nozzolio’s successor, Sen. Pam Helming, who represents the 54th District, called it an honor to fight for Sampson’s designation. “This is the good news we have all been waiting for. It’s the result of years of hard work, dedication and perseverance by local veterans, Seneca County, and retired State Senator Mike Nozzolio, who made this one of his top priorities,” she said. “The tireless work by these individuals has been awe-inspiring, and it reflects our enduring commitment and responsibility to support and honor our veterans. My father was a U.S Air Force veteran who trained at Sampson Air Force Base. This recognition means so much to so many veterans and their families. Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery will continue to proudly serve as a lasting memorial and hallowed resting place for our nation’s greatest heroes.”

Assemblyman Jeff Gallahan thanked those who were involved in the process, as well, citing the 10+ years of effort that went into it. “The selection of Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery as New York’s first state veterans cemetery has been more than a decade in the making. Home to the birthplace of Memorial Day, Seneca County has a rich history in honoring our veterans, making Sampson the strongest choice for New York’s first veterans cemetery. Thank you to Sen. Mike Nozzolio for his visionary leadership, Chairman Bob Hayssen, Seneca County Manager Mitch Rowe, Cemetery Director Bill Yale and everyone who worked to make this possible,” Gallahan added.