SALEM — When John P. Riley died in 1950, he was buried in Greenlawn Cemetery under a granite stone engraved only with his name and dates of birth and death. More than a decade later, the name of his wife, Theresa, was added.
Some years passed before a flat bronze marker was placed in the ground noting that Riley won the Medal of Honor during the Spanish-American War. His name on the small plaque is spelled “Rilley,” repeating an error made on the original citation. Over the years, grass grew over the corners of the plaque, making it easy to miss.
As a result, for 63 years, visitors to Greenlawn Cemetery had little idea that the simple grave on Eulalia Path marked the final resting spot of the city’s only Medal of Honor recipient.
Nobody seems to know why there was no inscription and why it stayed that way for so many years.
“I think it was just an oversight,” said John Riley, 74, a retired Salem firefighter and grandson of the war hero.
This fall, as the Friends of Greenlawn, a new organization, prepared for a public tour of the city cemetery, Riley and a friend visited the grave and were struck by the lack of information on the stone. The oversight was even more apparent when they visited the nearby grave of another John P. Riley grandson, Ralph Davies. It noted that the U.S. Marine had been killed at Iwo Jima.
John Riley made a phone call to a first cousin, Alice Riley-King, suggesting they start a fund to pay for an engraving on their grandfather’s stone. Other grandchildren were contacted — there are more than a dozen in the area — and in no time, more than enough money was raised.
“They answered the call magnificently,” Riley said.