Sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. It’s much easier to do so in the midst of celebrating a legislative outcome years in the making.
Council members voted unanimously for city staff to lead efforts to maintain the Greenwood Memorial Park and to oversee use of the nearly $500,000 allocated for the project in the 2019-2021 state capital budget. Centralia City Manager Rob Hill, state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and local resident Marveen Rohr received a hearty affirmation of their work pushing a bill co-sponsored by Orcutt and state Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis allowing public bodies to apply for access to privately-owned, abandoned burial grounds for the purpose of upkeep and visitation.
Rohr and Hill made multiple trips to Olympia earlier this year to testify in support of the bill, which passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously. It has been signed and enacted by Gov. Jay Inslee, with funding included in the capital budget available to the city beginning July 1.
Hill admitted during the meeting that someone in his position is not typically following protocol when they make commitments of city involvement before receiving the blessing of city councilors. The fast-moving nature of the legislative session and the need to push parallel tracks of a bill and funding to facilitate action should the bill pass made for a bizarre set of circumstances, Hill said, but it has already paid dividends.
“That’s not how it works, I’m brutally aware of that,” Hill said. “Because of the unique circumstances we had here, it was hard to ask for a blessing when we weren’t sure if we had the legal right to do it. … I’ve been doing this for a long time, this is so unique that the way it has unfolded has never happened in my career.”
The city has already applied for and received the required permit from the state Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation and will facilitate a community cleanup effort at the cemetery from 8 a.m. until noon on Saturday. Volunteers will need to sign in at 1822 Van Wormer St. and bring their own tools such as shovels and wheelbarrows.
Orcutt addressed the council to share how he first became aware of the issues at the Greenwood Cemetery when Debbie Campbell, executive director of the United Way of Lewis County, said she wanted to make sure her mother would be able to be buried there next to her father. An initial bill allowing for burials there addressed that situation, but did not fix widespread problems such as crumbling vaults and tombstones overtaken by brambles and weeds.
“This is not the first round of attempts to address the issues at Greenwood,” Orcutt said. “… it wasn’t something that I did, it was something we did in putting together a solution. This is far more reaching than I ever realized when (Campbell) first brought the issue to me.”
Rohr became emotional at times as she told the council of spending her younger years going to the local cemetery on Memorial Day to help cut flowers and spruce up graves. She has led a team of volunteers in past years who tried their best to keep up with the rapid deterioration of the Greenwood Cemetery, but couldn’t make up for the dereliction of absentee owner John Baker.
Rohr gave examples of just a few of the many war veterans buried at Greenwood, including her good friend Gary, who died while serving in Vietnam. Many veterans of World War I and World War II are also interred on the grounds.
“When the cemetery was eventually abandoned, that’s when those responsible just chose to walk away,” Rohr said. “…the thought that Gary and others like him who fought for us, some who died for us, the thought they would now be buried in a field full of weeds and dirt, it’s unacceptable. … Our heartfelt appreciation to the City of Centralia for stepping up to an issue you did not create. You have provided an avenue for us to go forward and I think we’re going to be able to fix this.”