Throw the stereotype out the window, because these two men are not afraid to make a commitment.
At the beginning of the summer, Frank Getty and his son, Greg, of Kenai, embarked on what they originally envisioned to be a fairly simple project of volunteering a few day's labor to tidy up the Kenai Cemetery.
As with most simple plans, this one didn't stay that way for long.
Their project list started with raking, garbage pick-up and a few other light chores but soon ballooned into hydroseeding, historical research, light construction work and a host of other duties.
Now that fall has slipped into winter, the Gettys are just now wrapping up more than 400 hours of volunteer labor at the cemetery and making plans for what they will do next year.
The scope of their endeavor may have undergone a major transformation, but through it all, their motivation behind the project never changed.
"I've got too many visions of how I want it to look," Frank said. "I just feel the people over there need some dignity. The setting when we started wasn't the way it should be for a cemetery."
The Gettys began their beautification efforts in the spring, after visiting the grave of Charlene "Muzzie" Getty, Frank's wife of 52 years and Greg's mother, who died in December 2001.
Frank, 72, and Greg, 40, brought flowers for her grave and spent some time sprucing up her site on Mother's Day. On their way out, they couldn't help but notice the post-winter state of disrepair the cemetery was in.
Leaves and debris littered the grass, headstones were covered in moss and sunk into the soggy ground, paint on fences and crosses was chipped and faded, and several graves were so choked with grass and weeds it was difficult to tell there was a grave there at all.
The Kenai Cemetery had never been Frank and Greg's choice of burial locations. Charlene had wanted a plot next to a dear friend of her's who was buried there, so the family bowed to her wishes. But even Charlene had been dismayed by the unkempt appearance of the cemetery when she and Frank had gone to look at the plot before her death.
"When we went out there to look at the plot she said, 'Honey, why doesn't somebody do something about this?' I didn't really want her to be buried there because it looked so bad. But she wanted to be buried by her friend," Frank said.
Donations accepted for cemetery cleanup fund
Frank and Greg Getty have lofty goals for the Kenai Cemetery and appreciate any assistance they can get in reaching those goals. Frank has set up the Frank Getty Kenai Cemetery donation fund at Wells Fargo for anyone wishing to contribute. Money donated during the winter will be used to build a gazebo in the cemetery this spring. The account number is 330-6085824.
When he and Greg were leaving, Frank suggested they get some rakes and shovels and spend some time fixing the place up. Greg said that was fine with him. The next day they spoke to Bob Frates, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Kenai, and got his permission to do some beautification work in the cemetery.
Frates said he was happy for the help. The city puts in about about 180 hours of maintenance in the cemetery over a 22-week season but doesn't have the time or manpower to get to every job that needs to be done in there.
With Frates' blessing, Frank and Greg returned to the cemetery with a pen and paper to survey the area and make a list of what they wanted to get done.
It started with general tasks, but with almost every step they took they saw a fence that was falling down or a neglected grave in need of attention.
They began by raking the entire cemetery and getting rid of all the garbage exposed by the melted snow. Then they got down to the heavy work. Frank used the mounds of dirt left on recent burials and 250 yards of dirt a city crew delivered to fill in low spots and sunken graves.
"Those were hard hours wheeling that dirt," Frank said. "It wouldn't have been bad if it was flat. But there's dips, and something I don't believe in is stepping on a grave so you've got to go around and in between them."
Once the sunken graves were filled in, Frank and Greg went to work scraping moss off the headstones and cement grave covers. If the headstones also had sunk, they removed the stones, poured sand in the hole and reset them.
They spent about 12 to 13 hours digging holes along the cemetery's driveway to hold two-foot pipes that can hold flags on Memorial Day.
Greg started noticing more and more graves that had bent-up metal markers, weathered old wooden crosses or no markers at all. Determined to give the people buried there an appropriate level of respect, he went to work fabricating 200 new crosses.
Greg is a carpenter by trade, so he had the tools, workshop space and skill needed for the process. He easily could have knocked together two slats of wood, slapped a coat of paint on them and called it good for each cross, and it still would have been a marked improvement over what was at the cemetery.
Frank and Greg Getty haul dirt to low spots in the Kenai Cemetery last spring. They've added crosses to unmarked graves, cleaned and repaired other graves and done a significant amount of landscaping. They hope to raise enough money to install a gazebo.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Instead, he went to extra effort to make the crosses sturdy and attractive. He cut the wood and routered the joint in each cross so the two pieces fit together smoothly. Then he used three coats of white paint on each one and wrapped the bottoms with Visqueen so they wouldn't rot once they were in the ground.
"Thank God that (Greg's) a good carpenter and that he's got tools in the shop," Frank said. "I don't know what I would have done."
For his part, Greg is modest about the crosses.
"All I did was make some goofy stuff," he said. "Dad did all the all the heavy work."
As the summer wore on, Greg found more and more unmarked graves in the cemetery. The city has burial records for as long as it has been operating the cemetery, but that has only been a few decades. There are some burials in the cemetery that go back hundreds of years. Greg enlisted the help of the Kasilof Historical Society in the beginning of the summer and the Totem Tracers genealogical group. They gave him a map of burial sites and helped him find out the names of people buried in unmarked graves.
"Those guys are on the ball," Greg said. "They helped find a lot of graves so there's less unknowns."
There are still 85 unknown graves, Greg said, but he plans to continue his research during the winter to find even more names. Every time he does find a new grave or a previously unknown identity, he marks it on his copy of the cemetery map, which he plans to give to the city when he's done.
It isn't likely the map will ever be 100 percent complete, since so few records exist from the time the cemetery was begun. But Frank and Greg have made it their mission to make it as complete as possible, out of respect for the people buried and to preserve their history.
"I've been over that cemetery so many times I know those graves by name," Frank said. "I know where the first grave was. It's still got the hump of dirt and moss on it. I never cleaned that off because it's kind of historic.
"There's so much history over there. To me its kind of interesting to work there. I'd just like to get everything back to like it would have been on the day it was put in. I don't know if I'll ever be able to, but I'm sure going to try."
During their work on the grounds, Frank and Greg have found graves that weren't marked on any map. They even found two graves under the turnaround section of the cemetery's driveway.
"One was even a veteran," Frank said. "I was just sick about that. It just tore me up. At least we got them uncovered."
Along with making new crosses, Greg also started fixing up and replacing fences around burial sites, but only after trying to find a family member or friend of the deceased to ask permission to work on the grave. Throughout their project, he and Frank have tried to ask permission before doing work on any grave.
"I don't think anybody complained once about something we did," Greg said. "If they did, we'll fix it. We'll make it right. We'll do whatever they want."
Within four or five weeks of beginning their project, the Gettys had made a marked improvement in the appearance of the cemetery and had made an impression on many people who saw them working. It didn't take long for several people to follow the example Frank and Greg set and come do a little work at the cemetery themselves.
"People came out and did their own thing," Greg said. "There were actually crowds there for a couple weeks. They did their neighbors'(graves), and it turned really nice quick. Now it all just looks good. I don't mean to be disrespectful and I don't know if it was guilt or what, but they came out in droves. It was damn near like a Disney movie, for lack of a better phrase. It was really cool."
As word of their project spread, the Gettys started getting donations to help with the costs the work incurred. A set of benches were donated and installed on the pioneer side of the cemetery. The VFW post in Kenai donated $300 to pay for brass name plaques, which will be made by Ron Malston over the winter to go on the crosses Greg made. The women's VFW auxiliary group in Soldotna donated a $500 charge account at Spenard Builders Supply for Frank and Greg to buy wood, paint and other materials. Frank set up a donation account at Wells Fargo that received about $1,300 in donations.
"It was very important," Frank said of the donations. "I was buying all the paint and materials out of my own pocket. ... Wells Fargo doesn't give me the names of the people who donate. But I just want to thank everybody."
Frank got some services donated as well. R&K Industrial agreed to sandblast and repaint the cemetery's sign. Booth's Landscaping helped by hydroseeding the bare spots in the cemetery.
"People have just been really cool about it and now it looks like a real cemetery," Greg said. "... Dad is the shmooze master. I've got no diplomacy."
The end result of the hydroseeding turned out as well as the Gettys had hoped, but the process was more complicated than they had expected.
"Wouldn't you know it turned hot the day after the hydroseeding?" Frank said. "I spent 12 to 14 hours a day watering it and at night Greg watered."
There is no water source available for maintenance in the cemetery so the city hooked up a hose to a fire hydrant by the baseball park up the street and ran it to the cemetery through a culvert under the road. Since there was only one hose, the Gettys could only use one sprinkler to water the hydroseeding.
"Dad sat down there all day long moving that thing," Greg said. "He'd come home cooked, just exhausted."
One of the goals Frank has set for the future of the cemetery is to convince the city to install a water source in the cemetery.
"I'll be jumping up and down like a yo-yo for water," Frank said. "If they turn me down, then I'll go back and go back and go back. It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease."
Once the grass grew in, the cemetery was well on its way to looking the way the Gettys wanted it to.
Frank Getty and his son Greg work in the Kenai Cemetery last spring. The two men have put hundreds of hours of labor into caring for graves and the cemeteries grounds.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"I used to argue with Mom about wanting to be buried there, but I'm kind of proud of it now," Greg said. "I like being there. It sounds weird but its almost like I met some friends. I look at these graves and think, 'What's their story?' You realize there were people there and they had a place and a name in this town."
An instance of vandalism a few weeks ago caused Greg to have to redo many of the crosses and fences he'd made. A city crew did an initial cleanup of the vandalism and collected all the pulled-out and broken crosses and fences Greg had made.
"It filled up my pickup bed, and then I got unhappy," Greg said. "Dad was mad, and then I got madder the more I thought about it. What's the point (of cleaning the cemetery) if someone's going to bust it up again? But I wasn't going to let them get us. I don't see how people could do something like that. It doesn't seem right. It just seems like a violation, like murder, even though they've already passed."
As the Gettys have found over the summer, vandalism is not uncommon in the cemetery. They often would discover broken bottles and other evidence of parties at the end of a weekend. The city has installed a gate in the cemetery fence, and Frank is working with the city to set up regular hours of operation during the day with the gate locked at night. Hopefully, this system will keep people from destroying the work Frank and Greg have done, they said.
It took additional long days for Frank and Greg to repair the damage, but they've managed to finish up their work for the season --including installing the headstone on Charlene's grave. Frank had his and Greg's name added to the stone as well, since they plan on being buried with her some day.
"I just felt I wanted to be with my wife, and Greg wants to be with his mom," Frank said.
Next year, Frank and Greg hope to line the cemetery driveway with landscape logs, put in two rock pathways on the new side of the cemetery and install a gazebo where a cemetery map will be displayed. Frank said he will try to raise all the money he needs for the gazebo over the winter so construction can begin in the spring. He's got about $1,000 in the Wells Fargo account now, and needs about $6,000 more.
Eventually, they hope to get the cemetery cleaned up to the point where it just requires light maintenance every spring to keep it looking nice. After the work they put this summer, they are well on their way.
Frank estimated they have spent about 400 hours working this summer.
"It was a lot of work but it doesn't really seem like it now," Greg said. "We spent maybe four or five hours a day. There wasn't anybody out there with a whip -- just dad with his clipboard."
Even though it was exhausting at times, Greg said the work was therapeutic for him. He was especially pleased with how it helped his father deal with Charlene's death.
"I was worried about (Dad) at first," he said. "It's been a bad 18 months. But he pulled out of it once he started in (on the cemetery). I'm proud of him. He was strutting around with a clipboard."
Frank agreed that the project has been good for him.
"It helped a lot, but it'll never be the same," he said. "(Charlene's death) was awful tough for both of us because Greg and I took care of her until she passed. It was the worst thing I've ever gone through in my life. ... It seems like I knew her all my life."
Frank and Charlene met and married in Tacoma, Wash., where they both grew up. They started dating when Charlene was 15 and Frank was 17. Two years later they begged their parents to allow them to get married before Frank shipped off for the Korean war.
In 1970, Frank was hired to manage the Sears Mall in Anchorage and the family moved to Alaska. He opened the Diamond Carrs store before transferring to Kenai to manage the Carrs Quality Center in Kenai. He managed that until construction on the trans-Alaska pipeline started in 1973. He retired from the pipeline for good in 1995 to take care of Charlene.
Charlene had been battling cancer for nearly 40 years. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with her daughter, Jennifer. After delivering the baby, doctors removed a tumor from her breast. From then on she battled the disease, slipping in and out of remission,
"In the last two years of her life, she had eight operations," Frank said. "She went through hell. But she was always smiling."
After the eighth operation, Charlene got a clean bill of health. She and Frank were planning a trip to Hawaii to celebrate their 53rd anniversary in March 2002. But last fall, Charlene got sick again, and doctors discovered the cancer had spread to her bones. She decided she wanted to be at home, so Frank and Greg cared for her until she died Dec. 1, at age 70.
"It was a great loss," Frank said. "Everybody has to go sometime, but I sure wish she'd been here a while longer."
Frank begins each day's work in the cemetery by visiting his wife's grave, and ends each day by visiting her again. He plans to continue this ritual, and his work at the cemetery, as long as he can.
"I've got a vision, I'm not going to just stop. As of this year I'll probably be out there until I die. I haven't got that much longer here, maybe a few more years. I'm going to make sure that cemetery looks nice."
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