Lorraine Melgosa from Manzanola, Colorado, a small farming town of 500, has been thrust into the national media spotlight. This humble woman is finding her voice to bring attention to a cause near and dear to her heart. Since the start of Wellington Carriage 17+ years ago, she and her horses have provided horse-drawn hearse services at over 700 funerals and, since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, she has carried the bodies of over 45 servicemen to their final resting place, free of charge to the military or their families. It is her personal mission to bring respect back to funerals, to slow it down and give grieving families a few more minutes with their loved one. Her family, friends and community have all sacrificed with her to make her dream come true.
THE EARLY YEARS
The idea for a horse-drawn hearse carriage business came from Lorraine's brother, Barney Clancy. When their father died, they wanted a funeral befitting his aristocratic nature. He wasn't from royalty, but he always carried himself with an air of dignity. When they were just young children, their father was shot during a robbery while he was working as a bus driver in Denver, Colorado. Though he lived, the event changed the course of all their lives. Initially, he was told he would be paralyzed and never walk again. Though he did regain his mobility, the ordeal took a toll on the entire family. It took almost 25 years for him to come to terms with the event and be comfortable around his children, though they had long since grown up. He spent the last several years of his life being the father he always wanted to be. The last eight weeks of his life, after being diagnosed with brain cancer, were spent surrounded by his children who rotated in and out of his hospice room. When he passed away, Lorraine and Barney believed the best way to show their respect was with a horse-drawn hearse. To them a horse-drawn hearse represented dignity and tradition. This service was not available through the funeral home and they were unable to locate someone locally offering horse-drawn hearse services. Because of their frustration and inability to provide their father with a last ride, Barney was inspired to start a new business. Lorraine became a partner with him in Wellington Carriage, named after their father, Wellington Joseph Clancy.
The Clancy children were born in Denver but they moved to the Arkansas River Valley of Colorado when Lorraine was seven years old. Lorraine got her first horse when she was in seventh grade. After she married, she had children, not horses. Barney had only been minimally interested in horses during his childhood. The lack of experience was not a deterrent to their venture, they just forged ahead. The hearse, an 1867 James Cunningham & Sons, was purchased at an auction in Pennsylvania. Their first horse was a Belgian named Pete. He was old, but turned out to be a good first horse. After Pete, they found a team of Standardbreds that they did not keep very long. The next horse was Mike, a dapple grey Percheron, found in North Platte, Nebraska. It didn't take long to see Mike was the horse they had been looking for. As you can expect, people weren't knocking their door down for funerals. Barney ran the business for about a year before he lost interest. Lorraine didn't want him to sell the business they had named after their father and she had grown quite fond of Mike. She took it over in 1993. Lorraine now had a horse and a hearse, and no truck with which to haul either. She was also a farmer's wife with two small children at home.
She soon bought a surrey and started offering weddings in addition to funerals. She says, “I discovered real quick, weddings are depressing!” Girls would call and say they only needed her for 15 minutes, gripe about paying and want her to take the horse and carriage places she wouldn't take her own truck! Often the women were older and it was a second or third marriage, their grown children were giving them away and the weddings did not seem special. Lorraine started stressing over wedding commitments and how she would handle it if a funeral came up suddenly. She never wanted to turn a funeral down so she could do someone's fourth wedding. “Funerals are a once in a lifetime thing” says Lorraine. “The people who call us for a funeral believe that their parent, their mother, their daughter or son was special. They want us to honor that person. Just like my dad was special. It's an honor for me that they would include us in that special time. That's what you live your whole life for and your funeral should reflect on your life. So I just do funerals.”
THE FIRST MILITARY FUNERAL
From the early days of the business, Lorraine never charged for the funerals of children, murder victims, or family or friends within the state. That meant 90% of all her services were free. “It's a labor of love. You can't be in it for the paycheck. You have to do it because you love it. I believe in it and I get a lot of satisfaction from doing it.” When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started in 2001, she was going through a divorce from Albert, her husband of 19 years. She thought her problems were pretty bad, but then she started hearing about all the servicemen and women being killed. She kept thinking, “I should call” but then she'd think of all the reasons not to. “I'm broke, I'm upset, Albert and I are fighting” and she didn't call any of the families for about five years. Then, SSG Justin Vasquez, from Manzanola, was killed while serving in Iraq. She had known Justin since he was born and interestingly enough, the first funeral Lorraine and Barney did was for Justin's uncle. Lorraine knew she would do Justin's funeral. She immediately called his family. At the time Lorraine was using another horse, as Mike had torn a ligament. Vicky, Justin's mom, asked Lorraine if she would use Mike, as Mike was special to the family. Lorraine went out to the pasture and had a little talk with Mike about what was at stake. She hitched Mike up to a cart, he appeared to be sound and she used him for Justin's funeral. It was a mile and half to the cemetery and Mike held his head up high and did a perfect job. One thousand people attended Justin's funeral, twice the population of Manzanola. That's when Lorraine says it hit her, “What problem do I have that's bigger than this?
The Denver Post carried a story about Lorraine, the funerals, and her aging and injured horse, Mike. After reading the article, Phyllis Patterson contacted Lorraine about helping her with the purchase of another horse. Lorraine had previously met Phyllis, when she and Mike carried the body of Phyllis's nephew, Navy Seal Danny Dietz, to his burial at Fort Logan in Denver, Colorado. Phyllis explained that the Dietz family wanted to buy her another horse for all she had done for them. Lorraine instantly refused saying, “Number one, your family has already given so much. I can't take anything from you. I can't take a cup of coffee from anyone, let alone have a family that's lost a soldier buy me a horse!” Lorraine says she lovingly argued with Phyllis over a period of time, however the family was so persistent that Lorraine eventually accepted their offer. The generosity of the Dietz family resulted in Lorraine purchasing Lady, a black Percheron mare, from the Troyer Sale, in Brighton, Colorado.
Mike and Lady bonded as pasture mates, they would go off by themselves and do what horses do, but where he was eager to please, Lady was anti-social. One day Lorraine needed to go to Denver. Just the day before, Mike had been sick, but when she left he was eating and drinking, standing out with Lady, looking good. When she returned home from Denver, Mike was dead with Lady standing guard over him. Only two days after Mike died, Lorraine did a funeral with Lady and she conducted herself just like Mike always had. Lorraine's son, Nate, even commented, “Mom, I think Mike had a talk with Lady before he died.” Mike was a grey and Lady black, but shortly after he died, a few white spots mysteriously appeared on Lady. She became a different horse. Lorraine told herself, “It was the only way I could go on, knowing that Mike's spirit was somehow in Lady.”
At the time of Mike's death, Lorraine estimates they provided horse-drawn hearse services at over 500 funerals. The community of Manzanola was grieving for Mike right along with her so she decided to hold a memorial service and 150 people attended. Because Mike liked the music that had accompanied them at various funerals, Lorraine asked the High School Jazz Band to come and play at the memorial. Nate was master of ceremonies and Lorraine's daughter, Jennifer, read a eulogy. People came from as far away as Fort Collins, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. Lorraine tells people at funerals, “The people are going to forget me tomorrow, but they will remember the horses forever.” Mike is buried in her front yard in a fenced plot, and today, people still stop to pay their respects.
Lorraine and Lady provided horse-drawn hearse services at over 80 funerals; 21 of which were active military. At 14, Lady died suddenly of colic in November 2009. She is buried in Lorraine's yard next to Mike. Then the motor in Lorraine's truck died. Suddenly, two-thirds of her funeral business was gone–no horse, no truck. Lorraine almost quit the day Lady died. What was God telling her? She felt like she'd given enough. There was no shame in quitting. After crying all day and night, the thought came to her: “Soldiers can't quit when their guys die, they have to keep going into battle ... why should I be able to quit?” A good friend, Jesse Sharp-Martin, came to Lorraine about a fund raiser she wanted to organize to buy Lorraine another horse and truck. Lorraine balked at the idea of accepting the help and money of others. She said, “I don't feel right about this. I can find another horse. I don't need this.” She discussed her concerns over the fund-raising event with another friend, whose advice was: “You can't deny people the blessing of helping you. You want to do all this for other people, but part of God's test is seeing what you can accept too.” Realizing in order to give, one must learn to receive, Lorraine attended the benefit. The event was wildly successful and, with the help of her local community, she was able to purchase her next horse. She felt now that God was telling her to come back stronger and better than before.
She bought her next horse sight unseen from Daniel Stutzman, Milroy, Indiana. A mutual friend contacted Daniel and told him what Lorraine needed. Daniel located a horse and brought him to Colorado. He assured Lorraine that this was the right horse for what she was doing and if the horse didn't work out, he guaranteed to replace him or give her money back. When Lorraine saw the horse for the first time she wasn't sure she had done the right thing. The horse was just off the truck, still had his winter coat and his name was Bill. The first thing she did was change his name to Duke, he was just not a “Bill” to her. Her father's nickname had been Duke, so she felt it was a fitting name. Back at home, she lit off firecrackers to simulate the guns during a funeral and she walked him beside the train tracks near her farm. Nothing she did phased him. Duke has proven to be a superb horse. Today, Lorraine believes that Duke will be her best horse yet.
Since the first military funerals Lorraine did with Mike, Lady and Duke, her mission in life has become clear. All she had been through prior to the wars was preparing her for what she's now doing. Lorraine and her horses have provided horse-drawn hearse services at 45 military funerals. She vividly remembers them all. When asked if one funeral in particular touches her the most, she says, “No ... they all do, they all have a story.” Lorraine has attracted the attention of the national media. She has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post, and the NBC Nightly News, during the “Making a Difference” segment. She does not like the attention for herself, but sees it as a means to an end, to bring attention to the soldiers and their stories. She's been called a hero and she immediately says she's not. To her the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are the heroes. She says, “They risk their lives everyday and what do I do? I put on a tux and go to work. There's a lot of other people doing more than I'm doing. It's not a big deal.”
Lorraine provides horse-drawn hearse services within a 400-mile radius from her home. This is the distance she can easily drive in one day, but she has driven further on occasion. She traveled to Roswell, New Mexico, after reading a quote in the newspaper from a fallen soldier's father. It read, “Just honor my son.” SGT Andrew Perkins was killed after the convoy he was riding in was hit by an IED. Three times Andrew went into a burning vehicle to pull people out and on the third time, it exploded and killed him. Lorraine says, “They are all heroes, but Andrew made a conscious decision to go into harm's way. If he can do that, I can drive a few extra miles.” At the same time as the Perkins funeral there was another funeral for SGT Blake Harris in Pueblo, Colorado. Lorraine and her nephew finished the Harris funeral at 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon and drove all night to get to Roswell, New Mexico, to do the Perkins funeral on Saturday. Lorraine would like to do funerals further away but she still has to make a living. She often turns down funerals that are too far away, something that pains her. “I wish I could do them all, but we try to get to the ones we can.”
WE CAN ALL DO SOMETHING
Because of the media attention, people from all over the country contact Lorraine and new friendships are made. Through her new friends and the friends she's made in the Patriot Guard Riders [PGR], (a group that attends military funerals to demonstrate their support) and her family and community, she is able to deal with the constant grief felt at each funeral. The effect each person has on her is evident as she recounts them for this interview. There have been funerals for children and complete strangers, she can recall something about every one. She says, “Yes, I have the hurt. I lose a piece of my heart each time, but look what I've gained–A support network that I didn't have before. That's how I deal with it.” She feels we all have a gift, this is why God put her here and why she didn't quit after Lady died. She feels stronger for all she's been through and for what she can do. She says, “Not everyone can do what I do ... but everyone can do something
The families of the fallen deeply appreciate her efforts. It means a lot to them that a stranger would do this for them. That she would pick up the phone and call them and do this for their loved one. “Just like I am humbled that a stranger would die for me," she reflects, "they are humbled that a stranger would drive 400 miles and do this funeral for them.” She wants the families to know she cares, that a stranger appreciates the sacrifice and what they've been through. While the ceremony of a horse-drawn procession is common for burials in Arlington National Cemetery, it isn't generally seen otherwise. For Lorraine, it is important to add this extra measure of honor and dignity to a serviceman's funeral, “I recognize the sacrifice you gave and you're going to receive the highest honor that I can give.”
Lorraine sees a difference in the way funerals are viewed today than in the past. Motorists used to pull over and let a funeral caravan pass as it made its way to the cemetery, pedestrians would stop and show respect, and men used to take their hats off. Today, there seems to be a lack of respect for a funeral procession. In her own way, with her slow horse pulling the antique hearse, people are forced to slow down and show respect. She once did a funeral for a long-time resident of Manzanola, the widow followed behind the hearse in a limousine. The funeral director driving the limousine was complaining aloud where the widow could hear about how long this was taking to get to the cemetery. The widow told him, “I'm not in a hurry to get to the cemetery. When we get there, it's over. I want these few extra minutes.” Lorraine explains, “Whether it's a soldier, or your mom or dad, or your child, this is their tribute. You don't rush through it. You take the right amount of time. We're giving people a few more minutes, because when we get there, it's over. We want to give them that last respect and those few more minutes with their loved one.”
Lorraine encourages the family to participate in the funeral procession. Often the family rides on the hearse or walks behind on the way to the cemetery. She says she feels really good when the family walks along behind. The family is in control, taking care of their own. When the family participates it speeds up the grieving process. She says, “The families walk away feeling like it was done right, we honored their loved one and that I've done my job.” Take the example of the funeral of Navy Seal, Danny Dietz. After loading the casket in the hearse to take him to the grave-site at Fort Logan, Lorraine didn't see Danny's mom anywhere. When she asked the family, they said she was just too weak to walk, she was too distraught. Lorraine asked Danny's mom if she would like to ride up on the driver's seat with her and she gladly accepted. “Besides showing honor to the soldier, look what I can give to the family. The funeral is for the family and the survivors. I can let a mother be up there with her son and not feel left out.”
SHE IS NOT ALONE
Lorraine hasn't done this alone. She gives full credit to her brother for the original idea. She says she would never have started this on her own. It was his vision that she just carried forward. It's been a complete family affair involving most of her sisters and brothers. Even the framed poem that is handed out to each family was written by one of her sisters. Her children sacrificed over the years as well. When they were small she often left them with her mother while she went to a funeral. She missed a few ball games and birthday parties over the years. Financially, it was difficult. Money was spent feeding and shoeing the horses and putting fuel in the truck. Friends from her community also pitched in to make this all possible. A dear friend, Pat Gomez, loaned her the money to buy her first truck after she took the business over from her brother. Pat believes in what she is doing and he and his wife remain one of her greatest supporters. The PGR show up early to help Lorraine prepare and they help her load the hearse after the service. Another important supporter is John Harris. John is a PGR member and father of a fallen soldier who's funeral was attended by Lorraine and Lady. John helps Lorraine by speaking to the family and presenting the framed poem on her behalf.
Lorraine looks forward to the day the wars will end and she can retire. Until then, she and Duke will continue to provide their services at military funerals. Lorraine and Duke recently participated in “A Soldier's Hike For Heroes,” a 7,000-mile hike across America by Iraq War Veteran, Troy Yocum and his dog, Emmie. Lorraine and Duke walked with Troy and Emmie for several days as the hike passed through Pueblo, Colorado. Along the walk, the community brought buckets of pennies to donate to “Soldier's Angels,” a charity that provides comfort and aid to members of the military. Duke has his own Facebook page and has many followers, keeping everyone up-to-date on his activities and his military “friends.” Lorraine has a blog on the internet, “Be An American Worth Dying For.” Her blog encourages us all to do extraordinary things in our ordinary lives to make our servicemen/women proud. Lorraine and Duke were also featured in this year's Army video, “Faces of Strength.” Lorraine demonstrates her passion and strength in all she does.
Lorraine, the draft horse community salutes YOU!
Lorraine (and DUKE) can be
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