Longtime Arlington gravediggers Clifton L. Pollard and Sylvester Smith, right, alongside the backhoe used for digging grave sites at Arlington National Cemetery, are seen on July 30, 1980. (Gary A. Cameron/The Washington Post)

Clifton L. Pollard is buried on the gentle slope of a hillock, beneath the shade of a maple tree, at Arlington National Cemetery. His white headstone likely went unnoticed in recent days as tourists filed past it to visit another grave about 100 steps away — the one belonging to John F. Kennedy.

Inthe days after Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago, few people did more to honor him than Pollard. The son of a coal miner and a domestic worker, Pollard helped lay to rest the 35th president of the United States — along with countless soldiers, statesmen and generals during his more than 30 years as a gravedigger at Arlington.

Thousands of people learned of Pollard’s role in the national tragedy when Jimmy Breslin, the celebrated newspaperman, featured him in a column in the New York Herald Tribune.

Reached by phone at his Manhattan home, Breslin recalled the moment when he arrived at Pollard’s house on Corcoran Street NE on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963, two days after Kennedy was shot. Pollard, dressed in his khaki overalls, greeted Breslin at the door.

“He had a strong handshake, you could say that,” Breslin said. “It’s diggin’ the ground up that’s what he did. He was strong.”

Breslin waited, drinking coffee, while the gravedigger ate the bacon and eggs his wife, Nettie, had prepared. Then, the two men headed to the cemetery, where Breslin watched Pollard prepare the grave of a president.

“When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground,” Breslin wrote, “the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine.”

“Now they’re going to come and put him right here in this grave I’m making up,” Pollard told the columnist, who recorded his words in an article that would become a classic in journalism. “You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this.”

‘Hardworking hands’

Every so often through the years, a reporter would contact Pollard to inquire about his part in history. But mostly, he was forgotten. He rose to a supervisory foreman’s role before retiring from the cemetery in 1980. On April 5, 1992, he died after a series of strokes. He was 70.

Over the next five years, his wife and family placed memorial advertisements in The Washington Post to commemorate the anniversaries of his passing. The ad in 1994 noted his “hardworking hands at rest.”

He was born Clifton Leon Pollard on June 16, 1921, in Pittsburgh, one of six children. Pollard was young when the family moved to Arlington County, said his sister, Helen Patton.

Pollard graduated from Arlington’s segregated Hoffman-Boston School, his sister said, before serving in the Army in Burma and India during World War II.

His first wife, Hattie, known as Daisy, died in 1952 at 31. His second wife, the former Nettie Smith Jones, died in 2010 after decades of marriage. Her son, Johnnie E. Jones, now of New Carrollton, Md., said he considered Pollard a father.

Pollard spoke little about his Army service, Jones said, but did recall that wartime construction projects taught him to operate some of the machinery that he later used at Arlington Cemetery. He began his job there shortly after the war.

The number of graves Pollard prepared could not be determined. Based on the published estimate of a co-worker, the figure could reach into the tens of thousands. He dug as many as 10 graves a shift. During the Vietnam War, the Miami Herald once reported, that number sometimes doubled.

One of his stepson’s closest boyhood friends, Lance Cpl. Richard W.B. Fox Jr., died in 1968 at age 20 while serving in the Marine Corps in Vietnam.

“I made sure he had a good location,” Pollard told the Pulaski Southwest Times of Virginia in 1973.

Final resting places

Pollard was reported to have worked on the Tomb of the Unknowns and to have helped prepare the burial places of Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Gen. George C. Marshall, among other dignitaries. Kennedy’s grave remains the most visited site in the cemetery.

According to an Arlington Cemetery representative, none of the caretakers who worked on the Kennedy site is believed to be alive. Metro Kowalchick, who supervised the burial, died in 2008.

“Pollard was his right-hand guy,” his daughter, Diane Kowalchick Waltrip, said in an interview. “He was one of his best men.”

Pollard admired Kennedy, he once told a wire service reporter, because the president was “against discrimination.” He took his stepson to the inauguration in 1961.

He was “happy about being able to dig his grave,” said his sister, “but otherwise I guess he was sad, like everybody else.”

Kennedy’s body was moved from its original place of interment to the current memorial site, which was completed in 1967. Pollard assisted with the effort and cried, he told reporters, because he felt he was disturbing the president.

In gratitude for Pollard’s work, Robert F. Kennedy gave him a tie pin shaped like a PT boat — the type of vessel his brother commanded as a Navy officer during World War II. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Pollard helped prepare his grave, too, according to the Pulaski newspaper.

Jones said that the pin was one of his stepfather’s most prized possessions.

‘It’s an honor’

Pollard did not attend Kennedy’s funeral on Monday, Nov. 25, 1963. He was busy on the other side of the hill, Breslin reported, digging more graves for $3.01 an hour. “Like I told you,” Pollard told Breslin, “it’s an honor.”

In the interview with The Post, Breslin said he did not expect his account of the gravedigger to become the cherished work of reportage that it is today.

“It’s hard to stand around and take bows for yourself — you just keep moving,” said Breslin, who in 1986 received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary “for columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens.”

Pollard’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery took place on a cold day in April 1992. “He knew he was going to be buried there,” his stepson recalled. “He used to say that they had a spot all ready for him” only steps away from the 35th president.

“It made me feel like the proudest man in the world,” Pollard had once remarked, remembering Kennedy’s burial. “It felt good to be able to do something for the president, one of the last things ever done for him.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.