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Watertown woman raising money for headstones for unmarked children’s graves

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It bothered Janet A. Fish that the little boy who became serial killer Arthur Shawcross’s first victim was laid to rest 41 years ago without a headstone marking his grave at North Watertown Cemetery.

So she made sure little Jack O. Blake’s grave finally got a headstone back in November.

And now she will push hard for other children who are buried without grave markers.

Mrs. Fish, 53, is working with the Northern New York Community Foundation Inc. and the Funeral Home Association of Northern New York to establish a program to raise funds for families who cannot afford to place a headstone on a child’s grave.

For years, Mrs. Fish, who was a classmate of Jack’s at the old Wiley School before he was murdered in 1972, has volunteered to clean up area cemeteries. She noticed that other children’s graves were left unmarked.

“That is so sad,” she said. “They need validation that they were alive, that they were here and they were loved.”

Mrs. Fish launched the “Forget Me Not” program by donating $1,000 to the cause. She now hopes others will contribute to the program for the tri-county area.

“It’s already a tragic situation and, usually, the family cannot afford one because of medical bills and other circumstances,” she said, adding it probably happens just a handful of times during the year.

Headstones cost about $300, she said. When the family cannot afford one, sometimes just the funeral home’s tag is left with the child’s name on it or the family places a seashell or homemade marker, she said.

The Foundation will handle the donations when they come in, said Max M. DelSignore, the organization’s coordinator of donor services. From a charitable standpoint, the program will help families with minimal resources while improving the quality of life in the community, he said.

“It was a natural connection for the foundation,” he said.

Calling it “a unique” program, Mr. DelSignore said other community foundations have gotten involved in beautifying or restoration programs for cemeteries, but it is the first time he’s heard about one to raise money for children’s unmarked graves.

Some of the funding, however, will go toward cemetery beautification, he said.

A three-person committee will be organized to oversee the program and work with funeral home directors when the situation occurs, she said.

Cullen D. Lundy, owner of the Lundy Funeral Home in Carthage, said graves aren’t left unmarked too often, but just once is too many times.

“It’s especially hard for people who don’t have the money,” he said.

Anyone interested in donating can contact the Foundation at 782-7110. She also plans to put together a Facebook page to publicize the “Forget Me Not” program.

Just by chance, Mrs. Fish and her husband, Gary A. Fish, noticed last October that Jack’s grave was without a headstone. So they purchased one.

In November, about 40 family members and friends gathered for a memorial service at North Watertown Cemetery for the dedication of a gravestone for Jack, who was laid to rest in an unmarked grave soon after his body was found Sept. 2, 1972.

Jack, who died May 7, 1972, was missing for four months before his body was found in a wooded area near Interstate 81 and Routes 37 and 12. A few days earlier, Shawcross had been arrested for the murder of 8-year-old Karen Ann Hill in Watertown.

Family members still live in the Watertown area. However, his parents, Mary A. and Allen E. Blake, are no longer alive.

After his prison release in 1987 for the killings, Shawcross ended up settling in Rochester, where he preyed on women. He was arrested in January 1990 and eventually convicted of strangling 11 women in the Rochester area during a two-year period. In 2008, he died in state prison at the age of 63.

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