By Bob Dyer
Beacon Journal columnist
Time is the enemy, and time is winning.
Time always wins in the end, of course. We try to trick ourselves into forgetting it does.
Mount Hope Cemetery in South Akron is a testament to the destructive power of time. In this case, though, time appears to have gotten a valuable assist from a classic human shortcoming.
I first wrote about the cemetery’s deplorable condition in May 2012: Weeds and grass 2 feet high. Random piles of brush, branches and dirt. A once-stately mausoleum with broken glass-block windows, themselves replacements for broken stained-glass windows.
The flagpole didn’t even carry a flag.
Given the size and historical significance of Mount Hope, the situation was a disgrace.
The cemetery’s 8 acres, fronting South Main Street near the new Bridgestone headquarters, have been a burial ground for 167 years and contain as many as 10,000 bodies. Veterans of the Revolutionary War filled some of the earliest graves.
My column focused on Bob Heilman, then 61, who lived next door and had been drafted by his father to replace him as caretaker and president of the cemetery association.
Heilman would make a big push each year to clean up the place for Memorial Day, but he didn’t do much the rest of the time.
He said he was hampered by a drop in donations — unlike many cemeteries, Mount Hope is not supported by a municipality or church and has no endowment — and by unkept promises potential volunteers had made.
But he vowed to keep trying, because many of his relatives were buried there and because “I made a promise to my dad: I would do it until we could figure this out. I stuck to that word.”
Well, for a while.
According to his daughter, at 3 a.m. Tuesday — six hours before he was to meet with a city official to try to reach an accord about the deteriorating conditions — Heilman jumped in his car with his girlfriend and headed to Reno, Nev.
The official he was scheduled to meet, Customer Service Director John Eaton, says Heilman’s departure leaves the place in limbo because the only other remaining board member is in a nursing home.
The city of Akron has no desire to get into the business of running cemeteries it doesn’t own, but the grass and weeds had grown so high this summer — 4 feet in places — that the grounds were in blatant violation of the city’s requirement to keep growth below 8 inches, and the public had been howling.
Many of those complaints were directed at Ward 7 Councilman Donnie Kammer, who in turn contacted Eaton, who arranged for a two-day mowing and weed-whacking binge.
The site is not in Kammer’s ward — it will be after redistricting kicks in — but many of the complaints were coming from people in his ward who have relatives at Mount Hope.
On Tuesday, Kammer was watching the progress of eight workers, four employed by the city and four from a community-service program that enables people convicted of minor misdemeanors to work off fines.
The cost of the massive cleanup (not calculated as of this writing) will be assessed to the property owner — whomever that might be or might become.
The legal uncertainty is a major concern to Norm Kendall, 75, whose family paid for the mausoleum and who plans to be buried there — even if he has to wade into a legal battle to sort things out.
He says his family has lived in the area since the Civil War, and all of his relatives are buried at Mount Hope.
“These relatives deserve a clean cemetery,” says Kendall, who was also watching the work. “We need the city or the county to keep this up, because the association is kaput.”
Some folks who are upset have no personal tie. FreddywithaY Schulz (yes, that’s his first name) lives near the Portage Lakes, but his girlfriend lives nearby, and they often walk their dogs through the grounds.
“I’m a big history buff,” says Schulz, sitting on a Harley in the middle of Sweitzer Avenue. “If you go back there and look at those markers, a lot of streets around here were named for those families.”
He was appalled last month, when he watched a family mow a path to a grave site purchased years earlier.
“Mowing the grass so they could bury the guy!” Schulz says, shaking his head.
“This is disrespectful. I’ve never seen this happen.”
After last year’s column, things appeared to be looking up. Heilman said donations started to flow in and many individuals and groups had volunteered their time. One man drove from Wadsworth to deliver an American flag for the empty pole.
Today that flag is not on the pole, and the cemetery’s long-term prognosis is the worst it ever has been.
Lack of effort
None of this comes as a surprise to Nicole Heilman, Bob’s daughter.
She is standing outside their tiny home, a structure so dilapidated that it might not be long for this world.
Nicole says things started to deteriorate after the death of her grandfather, who had overseen the operation for more than 30 years.
“My grandpa paid for everything and made sure everything was done,” she says. “He’d come out and check on [my dad].”
She says her father “never had a really strong work ethic,” and suggests the lack of follow-through with volunteers was not the fault of the volunteers.
“I told him I’d do anything to help,” she says. “ ‘I’ll get out there and mow for free. Just bring me some gas.’ ”
Nicole says she doesn’t expect her father to return anytime soon. (He could not be reached for comment.)
Meanwhile, countless individuals have been let down — and not just the living.
A dead character in Tim O’Brien’s marvelous novel The Things They Carried compared her status to “being inside a book that nobody’s reading. An old one. It’s up on a library shelf, so you’re safe and everything, but the book hasn’t been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody’ll pick it up and start reading.”
The 10,000 souls at Mount Hope Cemetery would be pleased if we could at least see the shelves.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.