Lack of upkeep on cemeteries has Austin citizens worried

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Blanton Museum of Art employee Candice Thaler jogs past the Oakwood Cemetery Tuesday evening. City officials are discussing the creation of a new “cemetery master plan” to revise city maintenance procedures.

Photo Credit: Mary Kang | Daily Texan Staff

While several Austin residents worry about cemetery maintenance because of safety hazards for visitors, others are worried about how substandard upkeep could affect those honored in the parks.

The five Austin city cemeteries contain the remains of historic figures, including several individuals significant to the history of UT. Confederate officer and UT Board of Regents member George Washington Littlefield is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery, and former UT football player and baseball legend Bibb Falk lays at rest in the Austin Memorial Park Cemetery.

Austin historian August Harris said he has met with city council members to discuss concerns of cemetery maintenance and management. Harris said preserving landscape, plots and structures located on cemetery land is important for educating generations to come.

“These are the folks that founded, built and created the Austin we enjoy today,” Harris said. “They’re the ones that had the vision that made Austin possible, and each one is crucial.”

Harris and other citizens have brought forth concerns to city officials about lack of watering, tree care and individual plot upkeep on cemetery grounds.

Gilbert Hernandez, Parks and Recreation contract manager, said the city has drafted a cemetery master plan which will analyze cemetery needs, identify costs of maintenance and lay out a time line for implementation of points within the plan. Hernandez said city officials began drafting the cemetery master plan prior to hearing from concerned citizens but that public comment will be taken into consideration while further developing the plan.

Emeritus professor David Gracy, great-great nephew of Littlefield, said the Littlefield plot is the only plot at Oakwood with graves lined north-to-south. Gracy said placement of the Littlefield plots symbolizes his relatives’ commitment to the South and support for states’ rights. Gracy said he is currently studying Littlefield’s legacy and believes UT could have been much different without the Civil War veteran’s commitment to the campus.

Before his death in 1920, Littlefield established a trust fund that would fuel the construction of the famous Littlefield Fountain located in front of the tower on University Avenue. He also wrote a check purchasing $225,000 worth of first-edition Shakespeare writings for the University and established a fund for southern history. Volumes from both collections still exist at UT today, Gracy said.

In his will, Littlefield left his Whitis Avenue house to the University, along with money for a freshman women’s dorm and additional funding which Gracy said may have made the greatest impact on UT. Gracy said at the time of Littlefield’s death, regents were considering relocating the college campus, but after they discovered half a million dollars granted to UT under stipulation that the campus not be moved from its original location, officials changed their minds.

“A group called Save Austin’s Cemeteries asked me a year ago to give a talk on Littlefield at his plot,” Gracy said. “Oakwood is under the city, and the city takes as good care of it as anything.”

Although Gracy said he feels the Littlefield plot is in good condition, other graves have suffered because of vandalism and the drought. While the monuments on the Littlefield plot stand undisturbed, other headstones have been chopped or smashed into pieces.

“It hasn’t been a chronic problem, but there have been isolated events of vandalism,” Hernandez said. “It’s sacred ground, and you really have to wonder why someone would damage a memorial.”

Hernandez said those found responsible for vandalizing graves are subject to criminal punishment. Although the majority of the grass at Oakwood Cemetery is brown, Hernandez said the master plan calls for implementation of drought-tolerant turf.

“We have irrigation systems,” Hernandez added. “The ones at Oakwood are a lot older, and when you take that along with the severe drought we’ve had into consideration, we can’t water as much as we want.”

The city has not yet determined a time frame for the implementation of the master plan, Hernandez said.

Printed on Wednesday, September 14, 2011 as: Cemetery maintenance worries Austin citizens.