Father, son turn cemetery cleanup into family affair

Landscaping with love

Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2002

When a job needs to be done, some people may ignore it, figure it's not their responsibility and leave it for someone else to do. Other people take it upon themselves to do the work, no matter how arduous, without being asked, compensated or praised for doing it. They do it simply because it needs to be done. Frank Getty and his son, Greg, of Kenai, are two of those people.

The two have spent every one of the past 15 days at the Kenai Cemetery raking debris, picking up trash, resetting headstones, placing crosses and doing a host of other landscaping and maintenance work.

What started as a one-day project for them has turned into a sizable task that could take all summer, if not longer, to complete.

Frank, 71, and Greg, 40, visited the Kenai Cemetery on Mother's Day to decorate the grave of Charlene Getty, Frank's wife of 52 years and Greg's mother, who died of cancer Dec. 1, 2001.

Neither were particularly happy about Charlene's desire to be buried in the cemetery, situated as it is next to the airport.

"I don't know which one came first, the airport or the cemetery, but whichever came second was a bad idea," Greg said, referring to the planes that roar overhead at frequent intervals. "Something went terribly awry. But she was a neat person and wanted to be out here, so she is."

Charlene had wanted to be buried near a dear friend of her's, Frank said, so they bought a plot in the cemetery. On Mother's Day, Frank and Greg visited the grave to place flowers and beautify it. While they were there, Frank noticed, and was distressed by, the post-winter state of disrepair the cemetery was in.

Leaves and debris littered the grass, headstones were covered in moss and sinking into the ground, paint was chipped and faded, and several graves were sunken and choked with weeds.

"It's awful," Frank said. "It's very disgraceful to me when I look at it. I can't stand seeing it like it is. I think if more people came out to the cemetery they would be feeling more like I do."

By the time he and Greg left that day, Frank decided something needed to be done.

"On the way out I said, 'Greg, what do you think about getting some shovels and rakes and fixing this place up?'" Frank said. "Greg said, 'that's fine with me, dad.'"

The next day the two spoke to Bob Frates, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Kenai, and asked if they could do some beautification work in the cemetery.

"Bob was tickled to death over it," Frank said. "He's very pleased with us coming and doing this."

Frates said he is happy to have the help in the cemetery. The city performs about 180 hours of maintenance in the cemetery over a 22-week season, Frates said, but some of the projects Frank and Greg are doing are ones that don't get done every year.

"We have some very wonderful volunteers here in the city that work in a number of capacities, but it's not all that often that you have one or two step forward with a true, genuine vision and some long-term goals," Frates said. "That's what you can say about (Frank and Greg). They have a genuine, keen interest in beautifying the cemetery and are committed and will be with it for the long haul. We are truly blessed to have them on board."

After getting permission from Frates, Frank and Greg returned to the cemetery with tools, a pen and paper. They made a list of all the projects they wanted to do, then they got to work.

In the 15 days they've been working, their accomplishments have been noticeable -- and timely with Memorial Day fast approaching. The first thing they did was rake the cemetery and pick up all the trash. A city crew brought a load of sand and a few loads of dirt so the two could level out sunken graves and reset sunken headstones.

Along the cemetery's driveway, Frank and Greg placed two-foot pipes to hold flags on Memorial Day. They spent about 12 to 13 hours digging holes down to the frost level and sinking the pipes. The pipes are down far enough that they will be permanent additions to the cemetery, Frank said.


Frank Getty and his son Greg rake stones from dirt they used to repair a grave damaged by winter plows.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

The most time-consuming project so far has been one Greg came up with. He decided to make wooden crosses to replace old, weathered ones and to mark unmarked graves. So far he's spent about 20 hours on the crosses, Frank estimated. Greg is a carpenter so he had the tools necessary for the job. He cut the wood, and routered the joint in each cross so the two pieces would fit together. After that he painted each cross with three coats of paint and wrapped the bottoms in Visqueen so they wouldn't rot once they were in the ground.

Greg is working with the Kasilof Historical Society to find the names of the people buried in unmarked graves. He plans to engrave the names into the crosses.

"It isn't much, but at least it isn't some bent up little thing," Greg said, referring to the old markers at the graves. "I think people deserve a little more respect."

The list of planned projects is even more impressive than what they've already done. They want to sand down, repair and repaint the fences around graves, clean headstones, scrape the moss and detritus from cement grave covers with wire bushes and repaint them, and sandblast and repaint the sign over the entrance.

They would also like to put in a 6-foot-wide path through the back portion of the new cemetery section. The path would be lined with weed retardant cloth, filled with crushed white rock and lined with landscape logs, Frank said.

The list goes on and gets longer each time they work. Frank visits his wife's grave every day before he leaves, and he notices more projects to add to the list each time he walks across the cemetery. But he'll keep working as long as it takes, he said.

"I'm going to make this look better, unless I die before I get it done," Frank said.

Frank retired as the manager of Carrs Quality Center in Kenai in 1995 to take care of his wife when she became sick from cancer. Greg is a carpenter, and has put off working for the time being to help his dad in the cemetery.

The two don't spend eight hours a day laboring, but they have been there every day since they resolved to undertake the project, and they have been buying their own supplies, like wood and paint.

"Honest to Pete, (Frank's) an absolute gem," said B.J. Elder, director of the Peninsula Memorial Chapel in Kenai. "You're not going to find a nicer person on the entire peninsula."

Frank said he doesn't mind using his own money for supplies, but he would be grateful if some people or businesses would donate materials or money, since he expects the project will be quite expensive by the time it's done.

What Frank would really like to see are more people out taking care of the cemetery.

"It makes me feel so good seeing people out here working," he said. "Since we've been working, people have been coming in and saying, 'my that looks nice.' We see more people every day coming in and straightening things up. Evidently somebody's getting the message. I hope so anyway. I hope somebody comes out and starts doing some work. But if they don't, we'll be here until fall. And if I have to pay for it myself, I don't care."

Frank doesn't get paid for his efforts, and doesn't want to. For him, the work he's doing honors the memory of his wife and everyone buried in the cemetery. The satisfaction he feels from that is payment enough, he said.

Two years ago when Frank and his wife were in the cemetery to buy the burial plot, Charlene voiced her dismay at the condition some of the graves were in.

"She said to me, 'honey, why doesn't somebody come out here and do something?'" Frank said. "I told her then, 'Well, maybe I'll do something.'

"I have a vested interest in it now. I know she's looking down and appreciates what we're doing. I can feel good about what we're doing because of that."

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