No one knows Calvary Cemetery better than Underdahl
By LEE BONORDEN / email@example.com
The tranquility of Calvary Cemetery along Turtle Creek in southwest Austin is shrouded in unrest.
Historians say the first burial occurred there on Dec. 28, 1863. However, a tombstone in the cemetery’s oldest section has “born, 1800, died, 1858” carved on its limestone face.
While historians bent on fastidiousness in chronicling Calvary Cemetery’s history may debate the first burial and the cemetery’s true age, there is no disputing Paul Underdahl’s contributions in the annals of Calvary history. He has been its caretaker for nearly a third of its existence: 46 years, to be exact.
The caretaker’s last day of taking care of Calvary Cemetery is Monday. “He’s going to leave big shoes to fill,” said his replacement, Bud Johnson. “The wealth of knowledge he has for being here so many years is amazing.” Actually, Underdahl may have been predestined to work in a cemetery. “There were seven boys and four girls in my family. All seven of us boys have worked at a cemetery or for a vault company. Everyone of us,” Underdahl said. Nobody longer than he.
Underdahl was born at Adams, but grew up in Austin. He attended Columbus Grade School (the forerunner of St. Augustine Catholic School), worked for the railroad and served in the U.S. Army for three years. He took a job at Oakwood Cemetery in 1960. A year later he went to work for Herman Goergen and Lynn Edwards at Calvary Cemetery.
“They needed somebody to help dig in the winter because everything was done by hand in those days,” Underdahl said. He was appointed caretaker by the cemetery board April 1, 1962. Underdahl will be replaced by Johnson, but his successor said it will be a hard, if not impossible, task to do. The years and the numbers support that observation.
Underdahl dug 1,300 graves — each 3 feet wide, 7 1/2 feet long, 6 feet deep —-by hand. Jackhammer and pick ax in the winter to break through the frozen ground. Pine boxes in the beginning, concrete vaults today.
“I had a helper when I started, and that was Glenn Flicek, who helped me off and on for 25 years before retiring,” Underdahl said. Help was needed when the snows disappeared and the frost left the ground, usually late-March or early-April. “You always needed someone, because there was so much to do,” he said.
By Memorial Day, when all the floral displays, wreaths and crosses — “tons,” according to the caretaker — were removed, it became largely lawn-mowing: a rider when straight paths allowed, but using a push mower, cutting close to monuments. “After Memorial Day, I only needed help for a few hours a week up until November, when it turned cold and the ground froze and I needed help in digging graves,” Underdahl said. “There was moving snow, too, but once you got into spring, the cycle started all over again.
“Work in a cemetery is never done,” Underdahl said. “You can’t get caught up no matter if you got the mowing done and there are no funerals, there’s always something to do. You’re either setting monuments or markers or watering or raking or painting. You can’t get done.
“Even in the dead of winter, there’s things to do. We’re pushing snow to keep the streets open in case there’s a funeral or something,” he said. “It’s a year-around job.”
Wehner Crane Service and Excavating made things easier, when its crews opened graves in the winter. Then came the addition of the “cooker” used to warm the ground to dig a grave.
A mechanical lowering device replaced ropes to place caskets in graves. “The last wooden box I put in the ground was in 1965. It’s been concrete vaults ever since,” he said.
There were the face-to-face visits with funeral directors and grieving families that lingered on the mind. Children, who died before their parents, spouses — husbands, usually — who preceded their partners in death, suicides, violent deaths and others that left him shaking his head.
“Unexpected deaths might have been the worst,” he recalled. “Deaths where a husband might have left the house in the morning and got killed on the job that day. Those are very hard on people.”
“We have to sell the grave to the families. They go to the funeral home and then they come out here to purchase the grave,” he said. “I’ve had many times where the priest had to come out and do the talking because they were just too devastated to do it themselves.” The stories flow semi-easily after an obviously uncomfortable beginning. Talking about death does that to a person.
It is more with melancholy than anything else that Underdahl recounts his work. “I dug a grave right across the fence along the street, when we were still digging by hand,” he said. “It was a family of four who got killed in a train wreck,” he said matter-of-factly. “It was one big hole with four caskets in it.”
Ten thousand people are buried in Calvary Cemetery; 10,000 stories in the 150-year-old cemetery.
The original 28 acres of land for the cemetery was purchased for $600. The St. Augustine Cemetery Association was incorporated in 1904 to oversee the cemetery’s operations.
Queen of Angels Catholic parish was established in 1938 and the cemetery’s name was changed to “Catholic Cemetery.” In 1950, the name was changed to “Calvary Cemetery.” The cemetery is home to the first memorial to those servicemen and women who gave their lives in World War II.
A special section honors Catholic priests who served in local parishes. A statue of Mary the Mother of Jesus is also given a place of honor. Oakwood Cemetery located along the east bank of the Cedar River was organized in 1862. Grandview Memorial Gardens cemetery was started in 1945. Arguably, Oakwood Cemetery is the burial grounds of more notables: pioneers from the city’s earliest days. Hormel family members, too.
Calvary Cemetery has its share of notables, too. More colorful, perhaps. Rube Bongard, the legendary bar-owner, is buried there and Fifi, his dancer-friend. Baldy Hansen, former banker, state senator and Austin mayor is buried there. John Tobar, former Austin fire chief, too. Former Austin mayor Tom Kough’s well-known parents, Mr. and Mrs. Garnett Kough, rest in peace there. In the priests’ section, Cunningham and Jennings are only two of the prominent names.
A special children and infants section. The rich and famous next to the ordinary. A cemetery is the ultimate equal opportunity for the dead. It’s just possible Underdahl knows them all. His successor thinks so. “You can give him a name and he will tell you where they’re at,” Johnson said. “I’ve called him at home on the cell phone and asked him where somebody is buried and he has walked me right over to the spot.”
Underdahl and his wife, Betty, have seven children between them. His favorite pastimes are hunting and fishing and Calvary Cemetery history. “I’ve dug so many graves, I’ve mowed around the tombstones so many times, you’re bound to remember names doing that for so long,” he said. Unpleasant memories dot his mindscape: the morning he found 33 stones tipped over; replacing 160 elm trees with maples and ash; mending fence where drunk drivers drove through; correcting the vandalism after the theft of the Virgin Mary statue; and sundry other things necessary to keep Calvary Cemetery as perfectly peaceful a resting place as possible. Changes include “monument” for the word “tombstone”, polished stones and even the way the dead are handled.
“I enjoyed working here all these years,” he said. “It was hard work at times and it touched me, too. The little caskets for babies and children, seeing those people who lost a loved one come back and pray over the graves. It all adds up.” And then a less-serious regret is told. “I missed so many fishing openers I can’t tell you how many because of getting the cemetery ready for the Memorial Day visitors,” he said. “I’m looking forward to catching up on my fishing and hunting now,” Underdahl said, laughing. “But I enjoyed it. I really did. I met hundreds of people and made friends, too. It was a good job,” he said.
When their time comes, Paul and Betty Underdahl will be buried in Calvary Cemetery. The caretaker has their twin plots memorized, too.
(Editor’s Note: Some information for this story came from the “Mill on the Willow,” a historical account of Austin and Mower County compiled in 1984 by the Mower County Historical Society.)
©2008 Austin Daily Herald