By Amaris Castillo
Joseph Mullen shuffled through papers on his dining table.
There were letters he wrote to the Board of Selectmen and Dracut Veterans' Services on behalf of his longtime friend, Raymond J. Gendreau. The documents pieced together Mullen's effort to have a new Veterans Memorial Square dedicated to Gendreau, a U.S. Navy veteran and Dracut resident known by many in town as Ray.
Mullen, a Lowell resident, had been successful in having two other squares installed in the city for eight of his deceased uncles.
"Raymond, he knew he was getting sick and ..." Mullen, in a trembling voice, recalled last Tuesday afternoon. "He said, 'It's a wonderful thing you did for your uncles. I'd like to have something like this.'"
The 70-year-old bent his head. Tears spilled down his reddened cheeks.
Gendreau never got to see town officials unveil a mock-up of his memorial-square dedication. Hours before the Feb. 27 Board of Selectmen meeting, the lifelong Dracut resident died of heart failure. He was 88.
"We're so honored to be able to do this for him," board Vice Chairwoman Alison Hughes said at the meeting. She held up a 32-by-12-inch mock-up of the Veterans Memorial Square for Gendreau, which will be installed later this year on private property at Merrimack Valley Dentistry, 144 Arlington St.
"I think we're all a little speechless," Hughes said as she glanced over at the other town officials.
In the audience, a visibly choked up Mullen sat beside Veterans Service Officer Lynette Gabrila. His hands gripped a folder with all the documents he worked hard to collect, including a signature of support from Jennifer Pujo of Merrimack Valley Dentistry.
Born in Dracut on Jan. 31, 1930, Gendreau was the son of the late Albert "Snapper" Gendreau and Marguerite (Perry) Gendreau. He was married for 53 years to Doris M. (Ciesla) Gendreau, who died in 2006.
Gendreau served with the Navy during the Korean War and remained active with the Naval Reserve until his retirement in 1991. The father of five also taught in Nashoba Valley Technical High School's electronics program for 16 years, where Mullen also taught.
"He was always driven. He was always fooling around with some kind of electronic thing," said Kathleen Villemaire, one of Gendreau's three daughters. "He always was willing to help someone and his family."
Villemaire, 63, of Hudson, N.H., said she knew of Mullen's effort to have a square dedicated to her father. She said her father wanted to see it while he was still living.
"I think it's great," Villemaire said. "Any time you can take notice to a veteran in a town is wonderful."
Mullen said he and Gendreau were close, having worked together for a short time. They saw each other often, sometimes two or three times a week. Gendreau would sometimes stop by and help him fix things around the house.
Villemaire's husband, George, recalled fixing antique cars with his father-in-law over the years, including a 1939 Bantam and a 1954 Packard.
"He taught me a lot," said Villemaire, 66. "If I was stuck with anything, he'd come over and he'd give me a hand."
His voice growing emotional, Villemaire expressed how proud he is that there will be a formal dedication for his father-in-law.
"He deserves it," he said. "He's done a lot for everybody in town. He's a good military man, very strong guy."
Back in Lowell, Mullen struggled to express what it meant for him to help fulfill one of his friend's final wishes. He insisted it wouldn't have been possible without others, including Gabrila, Town Manager Jim Duggan, the town's Department of Public Works, Merrimack Valley Dentistry staff, and Dracut American Legion Post 315, of which Gendreau was a member.
This square will be the third one Mullen has championed, the first two in honor of relatives. This one, he said, is for his best friend.
"This is to honor a friend," said Mullen, choking up again. "A veteran."
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org