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Pioneer Cemetery celebrates new era Monday

by: VERN UYETAKE The Pioneer Cemetery has an important place in Lake Oswego history, but it is better than ever today. Making this possible are, from left, Jerry Instenes, Dianne Johnson, Richard Santee, Nancy Headlee and Joe Collins.

Oswego Pioneer Cemetery is still going strong after 150 years thanks to some community minded people.

Now they want the public to celebrate the cemetery's new era at a special event on Memorial Day starting at 11:30 a.m.

'It has been a real thrill to bring this place along,' said board president Nancy Headlee. 'Things had to be put in place and funds had to be raised.'

The Memorial Day program will have many attractions including a color guard presentation, veterans tribute, music by the Millennium Brass, and hamburgers grilled by the Lake Oswego Lions Club.

It will be a fitting way to observe the revitalization of the cemetery, but it wasn't easy. It all began as sort of an accident.

'I showed up at the cemetery at just the wrong time,' joked Richard Santee, board vice president and manager of the cemetery. 'Before I knew it, Nancy and I were running the place.'

It was quite an appropriate move for both of them. Headlee has deep roots in Lake Oswego, while Santee was raised in Lake Oswego and his background as a history professor at the University of California-Berkeley made him uniquely qualified for the job.

Not that this made things easy when they took over the job in 2009.

'It was difficult at the start,' Headlee said. 'We had too many regulations and not enough money. When we started fundraising things got better.'

Maybe they were convinced by Santee's aphorisms.

'It is difficult to keep the past in focus,' he said, 'but we need to do it to keep perspective.'

Local folks pitching in with contributions large and small was gratifying. Making a huge contribution were the Boy Scouts, who made the place look great by building a driveway and pathways and installing flower boxes.

Another big help was Santee's wife Dianne Johnson, who joined the board as secretary and fundraiser. She wrote the crucial grant for which the Pioneer Cemetery Board received $25,000.

'It's a fascinating place,' Johnson said. 'Doing this was more fun than I ever imagined.'

One of the biggest barriers the board faced was transporting a historic home on 9th Street and moving it to the cemetery. There it sat on blocks for way too long a time, but now it is serving as the caretaker's house.

For Headlee and company, the many hours have proven to be worth it.

'The cemetery is fabulous,' she said. 'It has security, there's no vandalism and there's ongoing maintainence.'

Another key point is that the cemetery is now the last stop on the Oregon Iron Workers Heritage Trail. It is the final resting place of some 80 iron workers, the people who founded Lake Oswego in the 1880s.

Now Pioneer Cemetery needs just one more thing: You.

'Our main thrust is to be more visible,' Headlee said. 'This is not just a cemetery but it's a historic place, and it's also a green space. We want more people to stop and look at it.'

Santee added, 'It's also still an operating cemetery and there are plenty of plots (1,000 on 5 acres) left for sale.'

People can come to the cemetery not only to honor late loved ones, 75 veterans of almost every American war or great people like Linus Pauling. They can come for the stories, which the board has taken extraordinary effort to find.

'There's a selection of 100 photos taken from the library,' Headlee said. 'They've been laminated and placed on a stage and can be used for self guided tours. There will be a forest of photos waving in the breeze.

'Everyone buried there has a story, and many of them were instrumental in the beginning of our town.'

Also serving on the Pioneery Cemetery Board are Jerry Instenes, Barbara Warner and Jackie MacGregor.

Pioneer Cemetery is located at 17401 Stafford Road, next to the Lake Oswego Golf Course.