Crumbling JFK Gravesite Gets Facelift

Original stone mason joins restoration effort at Arlington National Cemetery.

Oct. 29, 2010 -- Thousands of visitors come to Arlington National Cemetery each day to visit the tombs of John F. Kennedy and his family members and read the late president's legendary words engraved in a granite wall opposite the eternal flame: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

But 45 years after those iconic words were etched into stone, the letters have faded and barely are legible to sightseers.

Restoration to the memorial wall began Thursday with the original stone mason, John Everett Benson, and a historical conservator, Gordon Ponsford, kneeling at the wall, painting fresh strokes into the lettering.

Just 25-years-old when he started work on the memorial wall, the now-71-year-old Benson still walks with a spring in his step and treasures his days of etching President Kennedy's famous words into history.

"Well, it's pretty monumental to begin with. The stones weigh 30 tons, so that's not a little thing," Benson told ABC News. "And we knew from the consequence of this appalling event that the memorial was going to play a fairly large part in the public mind and in the public presence here in Washington. I hadn't realized that people would still be coming here after 45 years, but I guess our lovely Jack Kennedy has become an icon."

The sprightly Benson, who is able to recite Kennedy's Inaugural address by memory, continues to work as a stone mason in Rhode Island.

Benson landed the job of erecting President Kennedy's memorial wall because his father's company was the only stone masonry still making letters entirely by hand for the application of monumental inscription.

Working with just two other men on the carving project, Benson spent much of his time worrying about the minutiae of the lettering.

"One of the tricks we have is to draw the letters like calligraphy, by hand -- no typefaces, no stencils, no computer cutting that stuff," he said. "We draw the letters with a brush the way it was done in Rome 2,000 years ago."

Benson joined Ponsford, the conservator spearheading the restoration project, to kick off the refurbishment of the wall.

Ponsford, who is tasked with cleaning and re-painting the letters of President Kennedy's Inauguration address, will work on the project for a week with one day dedicated to each panel of the wall.

Ponsford felt honored to have Benson at his side to begin restoration on the memorial wall.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I'm working with a legend," Ponsford told ABC News. "I'm equally as excited as working on this as working with John Benson."

The Knights of Columbus, of which President Kennedy was a member from 1946 until his assassination in 1963, is funding the restoration project. The nation will mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's Inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2011.

But while the American people will remember Kennedy's Inaugural address for inspiring service among citizens, Kennedy's words will always be ingrained in Benson's mind in a different manner.

"His words are great, but when you draw an inscription, as I did with each one of these maybe 100 times, it takes on a totally different nature and ceases to be a piece of prose, a piece of verse, or a piece of speech," Benson said, "and it becomes an artistic artifact that you are doing your darndest to bring to its highest possible level."