'Keystone Tombstones': showing a soft spot for dead people across the state
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Let's go around Pennsylvania and look for famous dead people.
As retirement plans go, this one may be unique. A couple of Joes from Central Pennsylvania have turned it into a book.
" Keystone Tombstones ,'' a table-sized paperback by Joe Farrell and Joe Farley, is billed as the first in a series. Its only criterion is that its subjects have to be buried somewhere in this commonwealth, which offers enough range to go from Ben Franklin to Jayne Mansfield.
The idea began, as ideas like this often do, over drinks. In the book's introduction, Mr. Farley says his wife gave her immediate blessing when he told her of his plan to become a tombstone tourist. "To what extent the fact that there are no bars in graveyards influenced her, I can only guess.''
With more than 30 deceased subjects, the book is hard to summarize, but its pleasures come with the I-can't-believe-I-never-knew-that moments, which are everywhere.
Take John Burns, whose chapter begins on the Gettysburg battlefield:
"On July 1, 1863, soldiers of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry and the 24th Michigan Infantry were stunned to see an elderly man dressed in dark trousers and a blue swallowtail coat with brass buttons and a high black silk hat join them in McPherson's Woods to await an attack by Confederate troops.''
Mr. Burns, who was then nearly 70 and the Gettysburg constable, fought beside the famed Iron Brigade all afternoon, shot a charging Confederate officer from his horse, and was wounded three times himself. When Union forces fell back and left him behind, he crawled away from his rifle, convincing the Confederates who captured him that he hadn't engaged in battle. That likely saved him from execution as a non-uniformed combatant.
"When President Lincoln came to Gettysburg a few months later to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery, it was John Burns he wanted to meet.''
A monument of Burns, rifle in hand, stands on the Gettysburg battlefield. His grave is one of only two at the historic Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg to fly the American flag 24 hours a day. Other grave sites have fallen into obscurity.
Harry Stuhldreher, the quarterback among "The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame'' who dominated college football in the early 1920s, is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Hazelwood -- and how many of us knew that?
I went out to see the grave Friday morning, which I'd never have found had the helpful people in the cemetery office not been ready with a map. The flat headstone is weathered to a blue-green tint like his wife Mary's stone beside it. It says simply: "Harry A. Stuhldreher; October 14, 1901; January 26, 1965."
Mr. Stuhldreher was a graduate of Kiski Prep whose biography of coach Knute Rockne became the basis of the movie that gave Ronald Reagan his nickname, "The Gipper.'' He'd been head coach at Wisconsin for 14 seasons before leaving in 1950 to become an executive with U.S. Steel. When he died, the three surviving horsemen were among his pallbearers for the funeral mass at St. Paul's Cathedral. And now?
"We had to go to the office [at Calvary] twice to even find the grave,'' Mr. Farley recalled.
Other graves were equally humble. Harold Melvin of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, one of the great soul groups of the 1970s, is in an unmarked grave at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. The grave of Frederick Muhlenberg, a delegate to the Continental Congress and the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is badly deteriorated in a Lancaster cemetery, within yards of the grave of President James Buchanan.
"It makes you feel bad sometimes, to see graves deteriorating or under-memorialized,'' Mr. Farrell said. "We found that in a lot of places.''
Western Pennsylvania notables with biographies in the book include Andy Warhol, David L. Lawrence, Frank Gorshin, Bob Prince and Myron Cope. The authors also intend to visit the graves of every Medal of Honor recipient they can find. They identify 15 in this volume.
The publisher, Sunbury Press of Camp Hill , says its strategy is to sell the $19.95 book online and so can't guarantee its availability in local bookstores. Meantime, as they continue their tour for Volume Two, Mr. Farrell wouldn't mind seeing the commonwealth's cemeteries make one addition.
"Some cry out for a bar,'' he said. "I think it would be good. We could call it 'The Parting Glass.' "
First Published December 18, 2011 12:00 am