Tag Archives: Evergreen Cemetery

Buell’s Gift Keeps Giving

Very few “06880” readers ever met Buell Neidlinger. But — thanks to his frequent comments on the blog, always providing nuance and back stories to the topic of the day — many of us knew and admired him.

He lived in Westport from 1938 through the ’50s. He had a long and storied career in music, playing bass with Billy Holliday, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Elton John, Dolly Parton, the Carpenters, the Moody Blues, Barry White, Whitney Houston, Ringo Starr and Bill Monroe.

Ella Otis

When he died suddenly of a heart attack in March, at his longtime Washington state home, the “06880” community mourned.

Mary Cookman Schmerker was especially touched. The 1958 Staples High School graduate first got to know Buell when he responded to an “06880” story about the Saugatuck Congregational Church by asking Mary if longtime organist Ella Otis was her grandmother.

Buell was a member of the children’s choir, and remembered Ella.

“I loved the way she would improvise fab modulation sequences between the hymns,”  he wrote. “Kinda reminded me of the movie music I heard down at the Fine Arts on Saturday afternoons.

“Anyway, I could tell your grandmother loved music from the way she played. That was my first introduction to that feeling in music, and it made me want to be a musician. I was, and still am in music!”

Buell Neidlinger

Buell and Mary exchanged several emails. Once, they spoke briefly by phone.

Buell told Mary that he wished he could revisit his parents’ graves in Evergreen Cemetery. She lives near Houston, but promised Buell she’d take a photo when she got to Westport in the fall. Her mother, brother and grandmother — Ella Otis — are all buried there too.

However, Hurricane Harvey canceled Mary’s trip year.

A couple of weeks ago, she finally made it back to Westport.

“Unfortunately, Buell couldn’t wait for me,” she writes. “He has left us for his eternal home with the Lord.”

But Mary kept her promise. She found his parents’ graves very easily.

(Photo/Mary Schmerker)

Mary wishes she had paced off the distance from Buell’s parents’ graves, to her grandmother’s. They’re very close — just as she felt close to him.

Their paths did not cross in Westport. He was 4 years older. Yet as she read the comments following his death, she learned he grew up in an old house on Clinton Avenue. She lived nearby, on Calumet.

“We would have roamed the same woods, walked the shores of the Saugatuck down to Lees Dam, heard the noise in the summer from Camp Mahackeno, and watched weekend traffic from the bridge over the Merritt Parkway,” she says.

Rereading Buell’s first email, she noted it was sent just over a year ago: June 1, 2017.

“I encourage everyone to ask questions of your elders now while you can,” Mary says. “Share the stories for future generations.

“I am smiling, and thankful to Buell for sharing with me my grandmother’s influence on his life. What a wonderful gesture and gift he has given me, and our children and grandchildren.

“Buell will live on in our hearts. And his music will resonate for a very long time.”

Where Westport Legends Lie

Perhaps Saugatuck Congregational Church members chuckled when they built a cemetery next to — of all places — Dead Man’s Brook.

Maybe they didn’t see the humor at all.

It’s hard to know what anyone was thinking back in 1836, when Evergreen Cemetery was dedicated just a few yards from downtown Westport where cattle grazed, crops grew, and ships sailed up the Saugatuck River.

But then — as now — Westporters died.  And for 175 years, they’ve been buried in the small cemetery on Evergreen Avenue.

Last week, Elwood Betts took me on a tour.  A native Westporter — born 85 years ago in a house on Imperial Avenue — he retired in 1989 after 42 years as General Electric engineer.  He’s got 6 children and plenty of grandchildren, but his “baby” is the cemetery.

As a Saugatuck Church trustee, and overseer of the cemetery, he shepherded through a lengthy restoration project from 2002 to ’04 — and, last year, another clean-up after storms walloped the graves and grass.

Elwood Betts, at the grave of a relative.

Elwood — whose great-grand-uncle, Orin Elwood, lies there — ensures that the final resting place of famous Westporters like Ebenezer Jesup, Samuel Wakeman, Hereward Wake, Herb Baldwin, Ed Mitchell and various Sherwoods, Gorhams, Bradleys, Morehouses, Coleys, Wheelers and Whitneys, remains dignified and serene.

He’s had plenty of help — Rick Benson, Boy Scouts, Kowalsky Brothers and Gault, for example — but without Elwood, Evergreen Cemetery might look the way it did a decade ago.  Dozens of stones were buried or broken.  Monuments had toppled.  Vandals did their share.

With Gene Takahashi — a Korean War hero — Elwood oversaw the removal of brush, overgrown pine trees  and poison ivy; the righting, resurrection and repair of grave markers; the cleaning of marble; repairs to the iron fence railings, and landscaping of the entire area.

He and his crew did everything, it seems, except move the dead to make them more comfortable.

A garden honoring Gene Takahashi sits on grounds the Korean War hero helped renovate.

Since then, 3 new burial grounds have been added — including a crematory area.  For a long time, there was no room for burial in the historic grounds.  Now Westporters can once again rest in peace in Evergreen Cemetery.

On September 25, Saugatuck Congregational Church will hold a commemoration ceremony at the cemetery.  This year marks the 175th anniversary of its founding, and the 150th of the start of the Civil War.  Henry Richards — a 21-year-old who died at Lookout Mountain — is buried there.

On that Sunday, speakers will honor the cemetery.  Coffee will be served.  Westporters will wander through the grounds, gazing at familiar names and thinking back to a time when this downtown cemetery served a far different town.

“We’re praying for a nice day,” Elwood Betts say.

Thanks to him, every day in Evergreen Cemetery is exactly that.