EVELETH, Minn. (AP) — World War II veteran Laurie Rudolph Heikkila, a native of Embarrass, was laid to rest in the town’s East Pike Cemetery more than 30 years ago. A footstone there marks his grave.
So, why did a grave marker engraved with his name emerge recently at the end of a family’s dock in a lake south of Eveleth?
It is a mystery that remains unsolved.
The surfacing of the grave marker is also a story of two families — one related to the veteran, the other not — learning about Laurie Heikkila, remembering a man whose life was rather “tragic,” and seeing that his memory lives on.
“That’s the neat part,” said April Robertson, who discovered the stone the evening of May 30 while standing on the dock at her family’s home on the lake.
“It was a nice night. We were down at the lake. The kids were swimming. It was a calm night and the water was like glass,” she told the Mesabi Daily News. “I looked to the right of the dock and saw a brick with writing on it.”
She got down for a closer look. “I told my husband, ‘I think that’s a gravestone.’ He said, ‘No way.’”
Robertson said she got a broom and brushed off the sand, revealing that it was, indeed, part of a grave marker sitting on the mucky lake bottom in water about 6 feet deep.
But it was only half of the stone, containing the middle initial, “R,” and the last name, “Heikkila.”
“The death date was apparent — Sept. 29, 1987,” Robertson said. Only the last “9” of the birth year was visible. It was also apparent from the section of stone that the person was in the U.S. Army during World War II.
That evening, Robertson began her investigation, first turning to Google.
“I had so many questions. It consumed me for days,” she said. “Who was this person? What kind of life might they have lived? Do they have living relatives still? Maybe they want it back. How did it get in the lake? Who would do such a thing? When did it get there?”
Her family moved to the residence six years ago and never noticed the marker, although “we did move the dock over a little bit” recently.
A few days after the marker was found, Robertson’s husband and a friend pulled the heavy stone from the lake. Feeling around in the water, they located the other half, buried face down.
The face-up portion was stained with algae. The face-down piece looked virtually brand-new. The two pieces fit perfectly together. The only damage, other than the break, was a missing chuck of stone at the top right corner of the footstone.
The second segment revealed the person’s first name, “Laurie,” and the date of birth, “Aug. 16, 1919.”
Robertson said her sister had already done some digging on ancestry.com.
The research disclosed that Laurie was a man, not a woman as Robertson had first thought. He was from Embarrass and had one brother, who was also deceased but had children in Oregon. They also knew he was of Finnish descent.
Robertson said she reached out to her husband’s uncle, Peter Esala, “who knows a lot about Finnish history.” It turned out Esala not only knew about Laurie, but had gone to school with his niece, Kathy Mason, now of Oregon.
It also turned out Laurie had grown up with the Esala family.
Additionally, Peter Esala had found a letter several years ago that a relative had written about Laurie.
Esala contacted Mason and sent her the letter.
He also paid a visit to the East Pike Cemetery, where he found Laurie Heikkila already had a footstone, virtually identical to the one in the lake, including an inscription of a cross. The only thing different was it lacked his dates of birth and death.
“It all happened so suddenly,” Mason said recently by phone.
It was shocking, she said, to hear that her uncle’s grave marker had been found in a lake — more than 25 miles from his burial site, at that.
She had grown up knowing very little about her uncle. She did remember visiting him a occasionally at the Veterans facility in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
“The poor guy was injured in his early 20s and lived the rest of his life at the Veterans Home. It was pretty darn sad.”
Mason learned more about her relative from the letter Esala sent.
Laurie’s father had died when he was a baby and his mother, who had Laurie’s older brother to care for, “was in dire circumstances,” she said. “She couldn’t feed two kids.”
When Laurie was age 1, Laurie’s mother put him the care of the Esala family, who took him in and raised him at their farm. He was never adopted, however.
Laurie lived with the Esalas until joining the military. During World War II he served with the Military Police stateside. One day, while breaking up a fight, he suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Mason said her uncle was discharged in 1943 after being “seriously and permanently hurt.” Because of debilitating head injuries, Laurie spent the rest of his life at the VA hospital in St. Cloud.
He never married. He never had children.
“He never really had a life” after his injury, Mason said. Sadly, “he was not capable of having a normal life.”
Mason said she is “comforted to know he had a good childhood” — that her uncle grew up with a loving family. Thanks to all that played out after the grave marker was discovered, she has newfound “glimpses into my uncle’s life.”
Laurie’s mother eventually remarried, to a Salo, and he was buried in the Salo plot with his birth mother and brother.
Mason plans to visit Minnesota next July and claim her uncle’s footstone — she is just not sure what she’ll do with it, she said.
Robertson said Mason also sent her a few photos she located of Laurie, pictured with his brother. “It was nice to put a face to the name.”
As for the mystery — Robertson and Mason have theories.
Perhaps, Mason said, the grave site was vandalized long ago and another maker was made. The one currently at the cemetery looks as though its been there for a long time, she said.
More probable, she said, is that the stone was damaged and a duplicate made.
Mason thinks that’s quite possible. “Maybe the first stone broke and it was in a scrap pile,” which somehow made its way into the lake.
Another possibility, she said, is that when Laurie died, her mother — always on top of things — had a grave maker made for him, not knowing the Department of Veterans Affairs would supply one.
Her parents are both now gone, so there’s no one in the family to ask, she said.
“It is truly a mystery,” Mason remarked. “It’s intriguing to me how the pieces all came together. It’s neat in a way. My uncle had such a sad life.”
Laurie “may have felt like his life was insignificant,” Robertson said. “Now, how many years later, his name is surfacing. The community is talking about him. His niece learned more about him. His life is being revisited.”
Laurie R. Heikkila, U.S. Army, World War II, “is someone not forgotten.”