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Column: Multitude of angels protecting Sandhill Cemetery from vandals

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Ron Shadley is raising funds to restore Sandhill Cemetery after vandals toppled headstones this spring. 
Ron Shadley is raising funds to restore Sandhill Cemetery after vandals toppled headstones this spring. PHOTO BY JOE HARPRING

Ron Shadley loves it when a plan comes together.

Thing is, he didn’t realize the plan to restore Sandhill Cemetery would come together so fast.

“This has really been amazing,” said the Columbus resident who has lived for several years in the neighborhood of the small cemetery on a hill overlooking 25th Street. “Given the condition of the cemetery, I never thought we’d already be at this stage.”

The condition of what had been a picturesque, even iconic, final burial place was, indeed, pretty bad following a nighttime assault by vandals earlier this year. Dozens of headstones — some taller than 10 feet — were toppled in a mindless spree. A number of them fell to the ground in several pieces.

Help restore the cemetery

Bartholomew County residents can support the rehabilitation of Sandhill Cemetery by adopting one of the damaged headstones or making outright cash contributions.

There are three categories based on the amount of damage to the stones:

$250 which would be applied to one of the 63 stones least damaged.

$350 for 17 of the moderately damaged stones.

$500 for seven of the most severely damaged.

Contributions or adoption checks should be made out to Friends of Sandhill Cemetery and mailed to 3729 25th St., Columbus IN 47203.

All donations are tax deductible.

Although depressing, the scene in the following days served as a catalyst for community action led by everyday citizens like Ron who were determined to see that the vandals didn’t have the last word on this historic cemetery.

It is only coincidence that Ron, who was one of the leaders in an effort to restore the cemetery, is in the funeral business.

He’s on the staff at Myers-Reed Dignity Chapel on 25th Street. Ironically, it was Sandhill Cemetery that got him into the funeral business.

“We’d drive by that quite often when I was growing up, and I can honestly say that it was one of the things that led me to this profession,” he said.

“There was a certain peace and a dignity to this particular cemetery that inspired me.”

He still has those feelings for Sandhill even though both the peace and dignity have suffered at the hands of vandals and neglect.

The toppled headstones were just one of its ills. Sandhill is in Clay Township, and as recent headlines and news stories attest, Clay Township’s government has been in a big mess.

A former trustee is under investigation in a case involving allegations of mismanagement of funds.

There hasn’t been enough money to pay for the township’s fire department, much less mowing the grass around the headstones.

The vandalism brought all of that to a head, and a number of individuals and groups have gotten together to bring some justice to this final resting place.

The upkeep has been taken over by work crews from the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department.

The headstones are a far more complex matter. A survey of the damaged headstones, some dating to the early years of the county, put costs for repairs at $25,200.

“The cemetery is the responsibility of Clay Township, but Becky Smith (the new trustee) has already told us there’s no money available for any of this kind of work,” Ron said.

“She urged us to go ahead and do whatever we needed to do.”

That’s where the acceleration in the plan comes into play. So far, the Friends of Sandhill Cemetery have raised $17,645 of that $25,200 goal.

The brunt of it has come in grants from two Bartholomew County foundations, $15,000 from the Nugent Foundation and $2,000 from the Custer Foundation.

Ron hopes to build on that to reach the ultimate goal so that restoration of the damaged headstones can begin by January.

One step is an Adopt-a-Grave effort. The Friends are asking that patrons adopt graves by choosing from among three separate classifications based on damages to individual stones.

“We have 63 headstones that can be adopted at $250 each,” Ron said. “Then there are 17 for $350 each, and there are seven of the most severely damaged at $500 each.”

The work will be done by a group called Stonehugger Cemetery Restoration Inc., a Nashville-based company that restored headstones in the Columbus Township cemeteries.

“They plan to restore the stones to the same condition,” Ron said.

“They will take apart each of them, level the base on which they had rested using the same kind of pebble-based foundation, put the stones back together, clean and reset them.”

While some bean counters might challenge such expenditures for a cemetery, it’s important to recognize what it represents.

Here are buried members of some of the oldest families in Bartholomew County. In fact, the last recorded burial in Sandhill was in 1923.

Consider also that this is the final resting place for several men who fought in the Revolutionary War.

That $25,200 is not an expense. It’s an obligation.

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