JUNEAU, Alaska / Juneau Empire / Neighbours / Retirement / July 16, 2011
By Brian Smith
The Peninsula Clarion
KENAI — The ground underneath Lyle Cole’s feet wasn’t special, really.
It’s the flora typical of Alaska, penetrated by an occasional weed, dandelion or tree stump. Of course there are headstones, too.
Six feet underneath those variously shaped and constructed resting place markers are 700 to 800 people buried across four acres.
AP Photo/ Peninsula Clarion, M. Scott Moon
The 80-year-old Cole has worked above them summer after summer for the last 49 years.
“I built that concrete cover over there because I liked that lady,” he said July 8 motioning to a grave covering as the sun breached the tree line and chased away the cool morning air. “She died of cancer at 40 and she had four kids, you know. Terrible.”
Other than caskets and memories of the deceased, Cole contends cemeteries like his — the Spruce Grove Memorial Park about 20 minutes south of Kenai — really contain only one thing. Weeds. He’s proud of the work and years of upkeep he did on the land, he said.
“What would it be like if I didn’t do it?” he said, looking down toward his feet. “Nobody would do it, I don’t think.”
For nearly a half century he has kept the encroaching wilderness from overtaking the cemetery and kept the headstones clear of the weeds.
“People don’t do anything and they go back to nature,” he said of cemeteries lacking maintenance. “They go right back into the woods and you can’t even find ‘em, some of them.”
The pay wasn’t much. But, Cole’s sense of obligation was more.
“Like that,” he said reaching over to yank a yellow-flowered intruder from the earth. “I have just about eliminated them. I declared war on the dandelions four years ago and you won’t find many here.”
At the start of this summer, however, Cole did something he’d never done before. He decided he would rather not keep up the cemetery anymore.
“I didn’t care about the money, I wanted to get out of here,” he said. “I wanted the work to end.” In a letter to the editor of the Peninsula Clarion, Cole reached out for help.
“I’ve learned a lot in 50 years, but now I feel like a dummy,” he wrote in his letter published July 1. “I had a boss who used to say, ‘Don’t be somebody’s goat.’ I feel that’s what I’ve been.”
Enter 33-year-old Isaac Walker, who read the letter and looked Cole up in the phone book. “It sounded like he wanted a vacation and it sounded like a job opportunity that would stick around,” he said. Now the weeds belong to Walker, a Soldotna resident .
Cole, who was born in the area, moved to Southern California only to come back in 1949. He started maintaining the cemetery in 1962 almost by accident. Like most cemetery business, it started with a death.
“My uncle died,” he said. “I thought the world of that guy and so when we buried him here, I took an interest in the place because he was here. “Then, I started attending those meetings with all those people and that’s how I got started. I kept going and ain’t anybody else did anything. We had a few people help out, but very few.”
Over the years, Cole contends his greatest help — aside from the occasional community-run clean-up day — were the secretaries. He remembers each one, from JoAnn Lahndt to Lorraine Blake, Della Kizer, Dolly Christl and now Jan See.
“They were all very devoted secretaries,” he said. “It’s a thankless job. People would agree to meet here and they wouldn’t be on time. It would be in the winter time, you know, and they have got to wait and wait an then the people want to walk all over the cemetery looking for one grave, you know. They do an awful lot with very little pay.”
The cemetery was founded in the mid-1950s on land received by the Kasilof-Cohoe Cemetery Association through a territorial grant, Cole said. The McLane family founded it, he said, and its first resident was Grandma Fellers, who was buried in 1954.
“That used to be a chapel,” Cole said looking at a small white building located near the oldest section of graves. “So on rainy days they used to have the service in there. But that was long ago. They quit doing that. We sold our own caskets here. Yeah, you could bury within 48 hours without any embalming.”
Cole cleared three acres of brush to the north by himself to make room for more occupants. He also plucked 200 beetle-killed trees out of the cemetery one by one, careful not to damage the headstones.
He never married. But, he did work in a cannery for 17 years and the money was “good enough.”
“I’ve waded through fish up to my waist,” he said.
Cole has an automobile shop that keeps him busy during the winter months.
“I hate the summer and now I like the winter,” he said. “People like it the other way around, I know. But, I’ve got to work all summer, so I don’t like it.”
But, after years of pouring himself in the land’s upkeep, Cole said he isn’t putting any pressure on Walker regarding its upkeep.
“I said, ‘You do it your way, I don’t care,’” he said. “I’ve just got to get out of here. I’ve only got a few years left.”
Walker is a man of many skills and professions — a life philosophy developed through the advice of his stepfather. He contends he’s ready to take the job without missing a beat.
“I like old-fashioned cemeteries,” he said. “Each one you look at has a personality to it, whereas with the new ones, you don’t know who that person was or anything about them. All the new ones are is just a name and a date, if that.”
His new place of work has plenty of personality, he contends.
“There’s one guy over there that likes baseball and so his old glove and baseball bat is in there,” he said. “Another one over there really liked cigarettes and vodka and Kit Kat bars. They’ve got a whole bag there and a couple shots of vodka and a couple cigarettes.”
Walker doesn’t need any training.
“He knows everything,” Cole said.
“Here you can start when you want and quit when you want and that’s the beauty of it,” he continued. “You’re free here.”
When asked if he developed an emotional connection to the land he was charged with for more than half of his life, Cole had a quick answer.
“Well, I get paid,” he said. After pausing a moment, he explained. “I just take pride in whatever I do — that’s my dad’s teaching,” he said. “Whatever you do, do it right.”
Cole continued to walk around the cemetery, picking up weeds whenever he spotted them. His navy blue coveralls showed a bit of wear, but he’s still spry for 80.
“Ask me how I feel, though,” he said with a laugh.
Now, he’s got the summer off. He’s free to go anywhere and do whatever he wants, he said. But leisure time isn’t on the to-do list.
“Oh, well I’ve got to paint my house,” he said.
Juneau Empire ©2011.
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