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Memorial Honors Spanish Flu Victims in Barre

Brian and Karen Zecchinelli with the Spanish Flu Reflection Bench in Hope Cemetery.
Photo by Larry Floersch

By Larry Floersch

Last year’s (2017-2018) flu season was a particularly bad one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with an estimated 80,000 deaths in the United States caused by the flu or its complications. Yet that number pales in comparison with the year 1918, when “Spanish flu” infected one-third of the world’s population and killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide.  Well over 600,000 of those who died were Americans.

This year, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of that pandemic, and this month, October, marks the peak of that pandemic here in Vermont. Yet few Vermonters alive today are familiar with the catastrophic event and the social upheaval it caused. That has prompted one Central Vermonter, Barre native Brian Zecchinelli, to act.

Zecchinelli’s grandfather, Germinio Zecchinelli, died of influenza on October 10, 1918, at the age of 35, one of nearly 200 people to die of the flu in Barre over a three-week period that year. (According to the Vermont Historical Society website, 1,772 Vermonters died of the flu in 1918 out of a population of just under 356,000).

Germinio Zecchinelli’s death fit the pattern typical for the Spanish flu, which tended to kill younger adults in their prime rather than the aged or young children. That left many families shattered, with children orphaned if both parents died, or with no family breadwinner, as was the case for Germinio’s family. He left behind his wife Ester and two small children – Elgio (Brian’s father, who was four at the time) and Yole, (age two).

Brian Zecchinelli began researching the pandemic over five years ago after he saw an article in the newspaper by a local historian about the impact of the Spanish flu in Barre. He knew his grandfather had died of the flu in 1918 and was buried along with many other flu victims in Barre’s Hope Cemetery, but he was unaware of the magnitude of the pandemic until he began to research it. “It came on fast and it disappeared just as quickly. The Spanish flu has often been referred to as the ‘double-killer.’  It not only killed the individual, but it often killed the hopes and dreams of their descendants,” Zecchinelli said.

“I knew I wanted to do something special for my grandfather, but it soon became apparent that this was much bigger than that. It blossomed into a worldwide memorial,” he added. “We’re hoping the memorial will rekindle awareness of this forgotten catastrophic event in the world’s history for school groups and tourists and maybe even people around the world.”

Last year Zecchinelli approached the Rock of Ages Corp. with the idea of creating a memorial to those who perished in the form of a granite bench. Rock of Ages was happy to help, as was Hope Cemetery and the Vermont Granite Museum. The four-ton “Reflection Bench” will be dedicated on October 26 at Hope Cemetery, and a permanent exhibit on the Spanish flu will open at the Vermont Granite Museum to tell more of the story.

“Rock of Ages clearly exceeded my expectations with the design of the memorial,” said Zecchinelli. “And we are grateful to Hope Cemetery, the Vermont Granite Museum, the GCB Corporation, who will set the bench at the site, and Bellevance Trucking for their help in making this project a success.”

According to Dr. Kristin Watkins, a Colorado historian of infectious diseases, the Barre memorial to victims of the pandemic is possibly one of only two in the United States. “I’ve only come across a small plaque at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska recognizing this history-changing event,” she said. “I just recently heard what’s going on in Barre, Vermont!”

Another Barre native with an interest in the project is Dr. Keiji Fukuda, who graduated from Spaulding High School and the University of Vermont College of Medicine and served from 2010 to 2016 as the Assistant Director General for Health, Security and Environment at the World Health Organization, a position that earned him the title of “the flu chief” among the news media. Fukuda is now a professor at the University of Hong Kong.

When he learned of Zecchinelli’s project, Fukuda said, “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.” 

The dedication of the “Reflection Bench” will begin at 11:30 am on Friday, October 26, at Hope Cemetery in Barre and is open to the public. Local clergy will offer remembrances and closure for all victims’ families in attendance.  Following the service, guests will be invited to attend a reception at the Vermont Granite Museum, where the permanent 1918 Spanish flu exhibit will be unveiled. The reception will be catered by the Wayside Restaurant, Bakery & Creamery, which is owned by Brian Zecchinelli and his family, and is, coincidentally, also recognizing a 100th anniversary this year. Effie Ballou opened The Wayside in July 1918, just a few short months before the peak of the Spanish flu in Vermont.

Spanish flu” is a misnomer. According to historians, the particular strain of the H1N1 flu virus that became known as the Spanish flu may have originated in Kansas and was spread rapidly by the concentrations and movements of military troops in World War I.  The influenza became associated with Spain because, being neutral in World War I, Spain had no press censorship and the newspapers there were free to report about the flu outbreak, so it seemed Spain was hit hard and first by the disease, and people started referring to the disease as the Spanish flu.