Labor of Love

With Memorial Day only days away, legions of people will remember and honor those who have gone before them with a visit to their local cemetery.

Thanks to groundskeeper Dale Johnson, visitors to Marion Cemetery can be confident their visit will be a pleasant one.

“Anyone can run a mower, but I think it takes a special person to take enough pride to keep this cemetery looking as good as it does,” Johnson said. “I hate to say that about myself, but it’s true.”

Johnson said his title is actually cemetery sexton, which he looked up in a dictionary.

“It says it’s someone who takes care of a cemetery,” Johnson said. “They must have brought that name over from the old country or something, but the name fits.”

Johnson enters his 10th year as an employee of the city of Marion, but his main duties involved the 30 acres known as the Marion city cemetery.

“I spend from the middle of March until the middle of October out here at the cemetery,” Johnson said. “When I’m not out here, I help the guys in the city remove snow or the electric guys trim trees.”

A 1957 graduate of Marion High School, Johnson left Marion for 30 years, but returned 10 years ago.

“I had a friend who worked for the city,” Johnson said. “He kind of got me back here.”

Even though the cemetery was purchased by the city from the Highland Cemetery board in July 1941 for a mere dollar, Johnson likes to keep the grounds looking like a million dollars.

“This really isn’t a job, it’s a personal thing to me,” Johnson said. “I even pick up cigarette butts and candy wrappers, which I wouldn’t have to.

“If you walk around these grounds, you won’t find much trash of any kind because I take this job seriously and I want it to look the very best it can.”

With more than 4,000 head stones to trim around on 15 acres, an additional 15 acres of grass without grave sites, and more than than 400 cedar trees to trim each year, Johnson spends his entire summer grooming the cemetery.

“I mow all summer long,” he said. “I start on the south end and by the time I make it to the north end two weeks later, it’s time to start again on the south end.

“The only time I take time out is when I have a funeral or something like that.”

Johnson said in some years funerals have numbered as many as 50.

“That’s a lot of people for a small town,” he said. “Of course, you have people moving to town and babies being born, but that’s still a lot of people to lose in a year.”

In addition to his mowing duties, Johnson is also responsible for digging new graves and maintaining the existing graves.

All that work requires dependable equipment .

“My biggest mower is a Hustler 251K that’s made in Hesston,” Johnson said. “It has a 51-inch deck, but that’s about as big as I can use and still get between the stones.”

Johnson said he has another mower and three trimmers.

“We share a small tractor with the ball park and we also borrow additional trimmers from the city and the ball fields,” he said. “The city guys come out and help me get caught up on the trimming for Memorial Day. But other than that, it’s mostly me.”

Some limited summer help also, Johnson said.

“The city hires high school kids during the summer and sometimes I get some help from them.”

Johnson credits those kids and the overall quality of individuals in the Marion area for the lack of vandalism in the cemetery.

“I think the reason we’ve never had any trouble with vandals out here is because these kids’ peers know their friends work out here sometimes so they don’t mess around,” he said. “We just don’t have that kind of trouble in Marion.”

Johnson said he targets Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

“Whenever I think people will be back in town, I try to make it look extra special,” he said. “On Memorial Day weekend, I’ll spend most of Saturday and Sunday out here making sure the restrooms are clean and helping put all the flags up and take them down. But most of that time is volunteer work.”

The flags which Johnson speaks of is the circle of flags that was erected two years ago.

“We have 57 new flag poles out here that were put up at a cost of around $17,000,” he said.

Also special on Memorial Day is the close to 300 S.S. flags that are put on the graves of American service veterans.

“We have a dedicated man named Jack Swain who puts a flag on each of the veterans’ graves,” Johnson said. “He goes out and picks them all up too.

“We have a lot of dedicated veterans in Marion.”

Johnson said a lot of people have the local florists deliver flowers sprays and arrangements because they aren’t able to make it to town themselves.

“The biggest problem is when the wind blows the flowers off the grave,” he said. “You can’t be too lazy to crawl off the mower and pick them up.”

Johnson said some people begin putting flowers on the graves for Memorial Day as soon as May 15, making his task of mowing and trimming even more difficult, but he isn’t about to complain.

“It’s the people’s cemetery so they can do things-I just try to work with them,” he said. “As far a people planting flowers or trees, that’s all right, too, but you just can’t plant them anywhere.”

Johnson said flowers placed at the cemetery should be retrieved by June 10, but the rule isn’t enforced.

“But it takes me about two weeks to pick them all up,” he said.

The months of July and August allow Johnson a small respite from the urgency of his job, but even then the mowing continues.

“It slows down, but you still have to keep it mowed and cut down the stragglers,” he said. “It’s just like your yard-if you want it to look nice, you have to take care of it.”

Johnson said by the end of the year, Mother Nature has given him a good challenge.

“You get beat up by the sun in the summer and you get froze up in the winter,” he said. “I have to wear a hat all summer because of the sun and a near bout with melanoma.”

While it’s rare that Johnson hears his praises, he knows his efforts are appreciated.

“Some people say how nice it looks, but most of them don’t really take the time to tell me,” he said. “But I know they appreciate the care I give to the cemetery.

“Most generally when people come out here to pay respect for their loved ones I think they’ll have a better feeling when they walk up to something that’s mowed and looks nice rather than overrun with weeds.”

Johnson said he could decide to retire in two weeks or two years, depending on one thing.

“I don’t want to quit until I know my replacement will be a conscientious as I’ve been,” he said. “It gives me a good feeling seeing how nice the cemetery looks.

“It just doesn’t happen by itself-a lot of hard work goes into making it look nice.”

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