In the first of a series of posts on notable people interred at Elmwood Cemetery, we would like to feature Joyce Kilmer, who although not buried here has family at Elmwood. Today would be his 130th birthday.
Joyce Kilmer was born on December 6th 1886 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He attended Rutgers Preparatory School, Rutgers College, and, when Rutgers required he repeat his sophomore year due to poor math grades, Columbia University. He would go on to write or edit for the Standard Dictionary, The Churchman, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, and Red Cross Notes. He also taught Latin, published multiple volumes of poetry, and his poem Trees became one of the most popular of its time. Kilmer was also a devoutly religious man, raised Anglican but converted to Catholicism later in life. Many of his works proclaim the honor of service in the name of a Higher Power.
Kilmer volunteered to join the Army during World War 1, leaving behind a wife and child. He was deployed to France with the 69th infantry division, known as the “Fighting 69th”. On the Western Front he earned the rank of Sergeant and served on the Regimental Intelligence Staff. He was tragically shot and killed while scouting enemy machine guns on July 31st 1918 at the age of 31. While Kilmer’s popularity due to his literary accomplishments brought him fame, his dedication to humanity drove him to committed service. Such service has inspired many groups to similar dedication in his honor.
On July 18th 1929 American Legion Joyce Kilmer Post 25 New Brunswick, New Jersey was founded by men who, “Hoped by their actions to help perpetuate the name of Joyce Kilmer,” through community service. Within a year the organization included over 250 members and had moved their meetings to Kilmer’s former home. They’ve continued to pay homage since their 1972 merger with American Legion Post 173 Milltown.
In 1936 the VFW petitioned the national government to, “Examine its millions of forested acres and set aside a fitting area of trees to stand for all time as a living memorial,” to Kilmer. In response, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest was established near Robbinsville, North Carolina. These lands gained further protections in 1975 when Gerald Ford passed the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act, which sought to expand on the 1964 Wilderness Act’s mission to protect wild land in perpetuity. The man whose poem claimed, “Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree,” posthumously carried such influence as to save millions of poplars, tulips, basswoods, beeches, and sycamores from potential destruction.
Other notable landmarks include Kilmer Square Park and Kilmer Park, and the Kilmer House, still standing at 17 Joyce Kilmer Avenue and open to the public. Camp Kilmer, located in Piscataway, New Jersey, served multiple military and civic purposes until the land was sold to the city of Piscataway and Rutgers University in 1963. 540-acres of former Camp Kilmer now comprise Rutgers’ Livingston Campus which hosts their Kilmer Library.
Kilmer’s early life was relatively ordinary. He received an education, worked hard, and had a family. But his extraordinary, unwavering dedication to his religion, country, and craft has inspired so many into action. We at Elmwood are honored to pay tribute to Joyce Kilmer, and hope you take a moment on the 6th to do the same.