It’s been 10 years since a neighborhood group tackled an almost insurmountable problem, and by anyone’s reckoning, they have prevailed.
“They are my heroes,” said state Rep. Bill Dunn, who helped secure funding to stabilize the Fort Sumter Community Cemetery. “They stepped up when needed. I have the best district.”
Ten years ago, the cemetery adjacent to the former Salem Baptist Church was overgrown, its gravel roads washed out. Its trust fund was depleted, and the for-profit owners had absconded or were dead.
Graves were not clearly marked and sites had been sold twice. Families were complaining about lack of maintenance; others were worried that their purchased plot would not be there when the need arose.
Bobbie Woodall organized the neighbors to take back their cemetery. Through litigation, the nonprofit board she founded gained control of the land. Gov. Phil Bredesen’s wife, Andrea Conte, met with the Woodall group but wanted no publicity. Dunn and Bredesen secured state funding – some $76,000 in September 2009, as Woodall recalls.
“We put $50,000 into a trust fund and had the balance to restore the grounds,” she said. But the Halls group did not spend that money. Instead, they more than doubled it as a reserve. And, in 2018, the state came through with $100,000 more.
The cemetery roads are now paved and the grounds are well-kept. A manufactured office building sits on-site, with large maps showing the grave sites and records detailing plot purchases. The cemetery has sold about 3,000 of its 3,200 plots. Directors are preparing to open a small section with another 100 plots to provide 300 for sale.
“Nobody here gets paid anything,” said Roy LaRue, who chairs the board of directors. “We’ve even got a volunteer CPA who maintains the accounts.” Board member Paul McManus added: “We won’t say who he is because he has a real job.”
Halls people have pitched in with labor and donations. Carl Tindell helped secure a good deal on the paving, said McManus. The trust account is maintained at the Halls Home Federal. Joyce Hurst is the group’s secretary.
The nonprofit pays a contractor to mow and maintain the grounds. It pays utilities for the building. And that’s about it. Surplus funds go into the trust account.
Woodall has stepped back from leadership, although she jokes that she’s “an advisor.” And she had high praise for LaRue and McManus.
“They operate the cemetery with a cell phone,” she said. “It’s a big responsibility.”
Woodall should know how tough that is because she handled the phone during the early days. Now the number (865-604-7188) is answered virtually 24/7 with LaRue and McManus taking most of the calls.
The Fort Sumter Community Cemetery is governed by a five-member board of directors, each serving a five-year term. There are 10 alternates. Each year, one member rotates off and an alternate moves up. The annual meeting is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, March 21, at the cemetery office, 4826 Salem Church Road. The annual report will be given, and the meeting is open to all.