PANORAMA - Caring for Hallowed Ground

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Mike Leonetti and Bob Steben, in the background, carefully mow between headstones.

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Kristen Heilbrun clears debris from the site of an upcoming service.

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Roubert Goulet, right, and Willie Hammond, background, carefully position and lower an empty concrete vault in to the ground before a gravesite ceremony Aug 31.

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Robert Goulet, right, works to position an empty concrete vault with Willie Hammond, back.

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Bob Steben, a groundskeeper at Mountain View Cemetery, walks through headstones adjusting sprinklers between times he mows, trims and cleans on a warm summer day.

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A collection of American flags stands in a bucket near gas trimmers and flower topiaries.

Where Second Avenue turns into South Howard Street lie 63 acres of tree-shaded grass, cool even on the hottest of days.

Looking east toward the Blue Mountains and south at rolling wheat fields, this spot, with its back to town, is a place for those gone and those who live on. Peaceful and serene, this place is a home to the community.

But the Mountain View Cemetery is also a place of work. It takes toiling long hours to keep those 63 acres of grass mowed and the 37,000 headstones and markers clear of debris.

Three full-time employees and four temporary workers maintain the cemetery, owned and managed by the city of Walla Walla's Parks and Recreation Department.

Those seven workers mow, weed, water, fertilize, mulch and keep the grounds in good order. They fix potholes in the roads, clean up the occasional litter and act as witnesses to family moments, whether it's burying a loved one or a mother pushing her stroller on one of the safe and shady streets on the grounds.

They also stand as witnesses to history. The oldest memorial in the cemetery is in the Baker Circle, named for Baker Boyer Bank founder Dorsey Baker. His infant daughter, Eva Rosaline Baker, died Dec. 17, 1854.

The most recent plot might have been marked yesterday.

And some neighborhoods in this cemetery, divided into roughly four larger sections, elicit more emotion than others.

Seasonal employee Michael Leonetti, who's worked at Mountain View for 10 years, has lately spent a fair amount of his time in the South Garden section, where his mother was buried this summer.

Taking a break from his riding mower on a warm September day, emotion in his eyes, Leonetti said that visiting two or three generations of family in the cemetery, along with his mother, is a frequent activity.

But then he's back to business.

The work never really ends, said Kristen Heilbrun, a full-time grounds maintenance employee. Heilbrun has worked at the cemetery for about three years and for Walla Walla Parks and Recreation since 1991, with some time in between spent in Milton-Freewater.

The crew's day begins at 7 a.m. They weed for about three hours, then get to work watering. About half of the cemetery is irrigated, while the rest is watered manually by sprinklers. Just moving the sprinklers around takes time, as only two can run at a time because water pressure in the aging system goes only so far.

They can water four blocks in an eight-hour day, Heilbrun said.

Heilbrun came into Parks and Recreation because she loved the outdoors. In the cemetery, she's married that love with an interest in history.

"After three years of working here, I still run across markers I haven't seen," Heilbrun said.

With 150 years of U.S. and Washington history - it's one of oldest city-run cemeteries in the state - those kinds of encounters with times past aren't uncommon.

The cemetery has Civil War and Spanish-American veterans, as well as veterans from most 20th-century conflicts, said Joan Schille, park maintenance supervisor. It's also divided along religious lines, including a Jewish section and Catholic section. Masonic Lodge members, like the Elks club, also have their own historic neighborhoods.

There is also a racial division, with a largely unknown section with Chinese inscriptions, Schille said.

It's those divisions that helped bring the cemetery together. At one time, there were four separate but nearby areas for unique groups, which were eventually absorbed by the city for the cemetery. At the moment, there are about 30 additional acres of undeveloped land that can eventually be plotted.

As the country has changed, so too has the cemetery's reflection of it.

When Schille started at the cemetery in 1990, about 15 percent of the 275 annual interments were cremated remains. Now, she says the number is about 50 percent of 200 yearly interments - cultural shifts nationwide account for the change toward cremation, with the West Coast leading the way.

Although there are ecological reasons for the shift, cremation is also less expensive, Schille points out.

The change has cut into the cemetery's profit, she said. Although run by the city, the cemetery tries to be self-supporting.

"One thing that hasn't changed is the number of acres we need to take care of," Schille said.

Walla Wallans expect the cemetery to look good. The biggest weekend of the year is Memorial Day, when the Veterans Administration puts American flags on all graves of veterans.

By Memorial Day, all of the seasonal workers have been hired, Heilbrun said.

According to Schille, it takes all seven employees about 50 hours each to prepare the cemetery for the weekend, and even then, sometimes it doesn't all get done.

The staff also takes time to prepare for burials, and doesn't work in those areas during the ceremony.

"We start at the front and work our way back, and by the time we're done we have to come back to the front and start over," Schille said of the normal operations.

There are also repairs to the grounds. Graves settle and sometimes sinkholes emerge, and those must be tended, Leonetti said.

The windstorm of January 2008 damaged several of the 100-plus-year-old trees, leaving the staff with a lot to clean up. Eventually some 300 new trees were planted to replace those lost to wind and time.

"We're doing a really good job at replacing the trees," Schille said.

Time has had an impact, she said. The irrigation system is at least 50 years old, as are the narrow, paved roads throughout the cemetery.

As with any city department, that means hope for assistance with upkeep and maintenance.

"We have the same infrastructure problems that the rest of the city does," Schille said. "With the current budget, there's talk of layoffs and reductions. That affects the library, police, parks and the cemetery."

A common question Heilbrun hears when she discloses where she works is whether anything creepy has ever happened.

Not creepy, but there have been things she and the other workers have been unable to explain.

Once a worker said they were alone in an area and smelled a heavy, old-fashioned perfume.

Looking up, no one was around. The scent disappeared.

And several workers report hearing voices, conversations and footfalls - in deserted areas.

"Every now and then, there have been things I couldn't explain," Heilbrun said. "Most of the people who've worked here have had that experience. That's just the way it is."

It's part of Walla Walla's history, and letting the place go isn't an option.

From the residents who use the tree-lined streets for their daily walk to a family's goodbyes to loved ones, the cemetery is important.

Heilbrun has family interred there, and she plans to be there, too, one day.

As for Leonetti, the best thing he can hear is a compliment.

"It means a lot to maintain it for the community," he said. "Last week, a few ladies visiting told me how nice it was. Hearing a compliment like that is a reward."

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