–submitted by Moses Altsech; photo by Jeff Burkhart
Whatever you thought you’d do after retirement, chances are it didn’t involve looking up graves. And yet that’s exactly what Dennis McCann did after leaving the Milwaukee State Journal. The stories he told us were not of ghosts, but rather of fascinating historical events—like the Peshtigo Fire or the Bayfield Flood—that he got to know more intimately by visiting cemeteries.
More importantly, through his cemetery visits, McCann got to know the people buried there—sometimes ordinary and sometimes extraordinary: Their story is sometimes captured by unique gravestone inscriptions (“In 1958 a contest was held to find the meanest woman in the world. Alas, I married both the winner and the runner-up… But if either are buried in this lot beside me there is going to be a resurrection”) and sometimes left unsaid—as in the case of John Heisman, whose tombstone doesn’t mention his Heisman Trophy fame.
Here in Madison we have the graves of 140 confederate prisoners of war held at Camp Randall, alongside the grave of the woman who once took care of their gravestones.
“Cemeteries are full of stories,” said McCann, obviously relishing the quest for discovering and telling those truly captivating stories. In one instance, McCann interviewed a grave digger who took great pride in taking care of his cemetery much like he kept his yard at home. “You got to be a cemetery man,” the man told him. “You got to be dedicated.” In Dennis McCann’s case, it takes one to know one.
If you missed our meeting this week, you can watch the video here.