Responsibility for historic cemetery “more than just a job”

Published 4:31 pm Saturday, July 9, 2022

By CLARK CURTIS / For the Washington Daily News

For one man, overseeing the city’s largest cemetery is more than just a job

“I have 32 years in and could retire. But I don’t want to leave because I love so much working with the public.”

So says Jerome Tyson, the public works general superintendent of the City of Washington, who, along with his crew of three, oversees Oakdale and Cedar Hill cemeteries in Washington. On this day we sat in his office, which is the home of the original caretaker at Oakdale Cemetery. It is literally a step back in time, as much of the original handcrafted woodwork done by prisoners, remains intact. Tyson took me outside this small white home and pointed out a board on the side with the date 1911 etched into it. It is his belief that the home was either built just after the turn of the century. Or, he says, it perhaps was moved from the top of a nearby hill, which overlooks the vast, rolling landscape of the cemetery that same year, to its current location near the main entrance along 15th Street. Either way, it serves as an unassuming greeter to a piece of Washington’s history.

The City of Washington took over Oakdale cemetery on April 17, 1890.  Tyson will tell you that the oldest grave is that of William Potts who was buried atop the hill that overlooks the expanse of the entire cemetery in 1795. Tyson says, Oakdale’s sixty-some acres serve as a final resting place for more than 28,000 people. And it is his responsibility and that of his crew, to mow, weed-eat, straighten markers, open and close gravesites, and provide all of the overall maintenance as needed.

“I’m very hard-core about making this place look as good as my house looks, and my guys know that,” says Tyson. “I tell them, I don’t care what your home looks like. This place is always going to look nice to the people. That’s what we are here for.” Tyson says he tells his crew if they find a hole to mark it, and go back and fix it. He tells them, “one day your mama might be here and you certainly wouldn’t want her tripping and breaking her ankle. So pay our visitors the same respect.”

For Tyson though, it is more than just a job. He says he simply loves working with people. And he will certainly go the extra mile to make sure the needs of grieving families are being met, and to always be there for them. As an unassuming, modest, soft-spoken individual, he has received the nickname, “teddy bear” by some, for his warm and caring hugs. “I guess you could say I’m just a big teddy bear,” said Tyson. “There are times that grieving family members are just looking for a big hug, and I want to be able to give them one.  I feel good knowing they feel better after they have left. Anyone who knows me knows that’s exactly who I am. I have a very big heart.” Jokingly, he adds, his wife is jealous because she says he has “a lot of girlfriends.” On more than one occasion, he says, a customer at the bank where his wife works, has mentioned the big hug she received at the cemetery and how much it meant to her. “That was my husband,” she tells them.

For many, when the sun first peaks its head over the horizon, Oakdale has become a peaceful refuge. Tyson says on any given day there could be up to 50 walkers that make their way along the 1.1-mile walking trail that winds its way through the cemetery. “The majority of the walkers are women,” said Tyson. “I tell my guys to keep an eye out for them when they are out working and to make sure no one is messing with them. It’s a very peaceful time for them. I sometimes like to walk out there myself, because it is so peaceful.”

Tyson has also helped many families find missing gravesites. As he explains the technology that he uses is by no means high tech. He uses two copper dowsing rods. “A lot of folks are doubters, but I can only remember one time when they didn’t work,” said Tyson. “I have been able to locate missing graves, and determine whether a male or female is buried there. I’ve helped family members locate graves in private cemeteries or fields near an old homestead where there are no headstones.”

One of the tell-tale landmarks at the entrance to the cemetery, is the basketball court. Tyson says it has been there for all of his 52 years, as a lifelong resident of Washington. He says there are days when kids and adults play from 8 a.m. until dusk. “I must say they are so respectful of the cemetery,” said Tyson. “If a funeral procession comes in, they will pay their respects and stop playing. I’ve even had people who have played there ask me if they could be buried right next to the court when they pass.”

He says among those who played there was Dominique Wilkins, the “human highlight reel” as he was known during his playing days at Washington High School in the late 70s. Wilkins went on to be an all-American at Georgia and a member of the NBA Hall of Fame following his illustrious career with the Atlanta Hawks.

Watching these kids succeed is very important for Tyson. He was a coach and a manager at Washington High School for 26 years, a member of the Washington High School Walk of Fame, and is currently an active football coach at Northside High School. He also had the opportunity to coach Dominique’s young nephew, Damien Wilkins, who went on to play for ten years in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76’ers.

“I’ve told all of the kids that I have coached over the years it ain’t easy to be good and that they have to work hard,” said Tyson. “I’ve encouraged them to go to college, get an education, and do something with their lives. It always pains me to hear when one of the kids gets off course. I’ve tried hard to be a male role model for many, as a lot of them don’t have a daddy.”

So whether it’s a grieving family, or a young student-athlete looking for some guidance, Tyson has a special place for them all in a very, very, big heart.