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Oakland: The Cemetery that Keeps Me Growing

In July 1974, a ten-year-old boy playing putt-putt golf near Annapolis, Maryland, observed a former vice-president swinging away at the adjacent driving range. The young boy asked Spiro Agnew for his autograph. As he signed the back of my scorecard, Mr. Agnew said, “Good luck, young man. Never stop learning.” A month later, I found myself outside the White House as Gerald Ford was hastily sworn into office following the resignation of Agnew’s former boss, Richard Nixon. I realized this was history in the making. Just a year earlier, I witnessed my favorite uncle, Dr. John Duffy (a professor of history at the University of South Carolina), become mesmerized by TV as the Watergate hearings dominated every channel. With these early experiences, I knew I needed to get into the game of “history.”

I would love to say I was a gifted and motivated student who pursued a challenging academic path. For better or worse, my journey to this blog has been circuitous. Following a military career and twelve additional years with the federal government, I used my GI Bill to go to school. History was the obvious choice for a major, but I discovered an interesting minor called Public History. And voila! Here I am in Oakland Cemetery for the summer.

In reality, my relationship with Public History at Kennesaw State (KSU) has brought me to Oakland several times. First, I learned about Oakland and Historic Oakland Foundation (HOF) while studying Confederate monuments in an Intro to Public History course in the autumn of 2021. Then, I volunteered during the Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween tours. In spring 2022, my KSU Museum Exhibitions class worked on an exhibit for the soon-to-open renovated Bell Tower. This summer, I have been an intern with the education department updating several cemetery tours, like the Civil War walking tour and an upcoming tour on veterans.

The cemetery is so full of life. I mean that! The stories of every resident, the rich history of Atlanta as told through the cemetery, the events, the HOF staff, and volunteers. All these combined make my experiences simply awesome. Oakland has sealed my transition from amateur cemetery admirer to professional cemetery geek.

As a child, I loved the old cemeteries in Charleston, South Carolina. As a soldier, I was mesmerized by the overseas American WWI and WWII cemeteries in Europe. This love for cemeteries continued during my post-military career. I directed four national cemeteries throughout our nation, providing over 15,000 burials to our honored veterans and families. Most cemeteries welcome the public to visit, remember, and leave quietly. Oakland wants you to explore, ask questions, stroll, tour, be excited, and dive into our history.

Helping rewrite the Civil War tour was an eye opener. Growing up in Charleston, my 7th and 11th grade U.S. History courses taught a Lost Cause-fueled narrative that declared that the Civil War started over states’ rights. Over the decades, I have absorbed a more accurate and complete story. But here at Oakland, I came to realize that 100 + years of the Lost Cause narrative has left a deep mark on the way history has been told. Helping get the story right for generations of visitors is what kept me growing this summer. On another note – writing a tour is much more than getting the facts straight. History is still a story. A tour weaves a compelling story while bringing in current themes. My awesome summer boss, Marcy Breffle, shared that for each tour stop, I should ask myself the following questions: “So what? What about this person? Why should I (the visitor) care about their story?” These were the guidelines that helped me turn facts into a compelling story. Or at least I hope so!

Old Vice President Agnew was a complex guy. He, like Nixon, left his final job under less-than-ideal circumstances. But he took the time to sign my scorecard and share some words of wisdom. Thanks to Marcy, the HOF staff, the volunteers, and the 70,000 residents at Oakland, the learning continues. See you at this year’s Capturing the Spirit of Oakland!

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