Keeping Steele Cemetery beautiful for generations to come

By Lori Gottula
There are times when a writer just can’t do what a subject has asked, and this is one of those times. You see, John Martin didn’t want to be included in this story, but without his vision and passion for a project at Falls City’s Steele Cemetery, there literally would be no story. So John, I’m sorry, but I can’t do what you have asked. Please just sit back and enjoy the ride.
For twelve years now, John has been thinking about and researching Steele Cemetery because his grandmother’s grandfather, Joseph Steele, was the founder. John remembers that his mother used to take him there, and the two would sit beneath one of the huge pine trees while she wove stories about the souls who are buried beneath the stones.
Several years ago, John was visiting his mother’s grave, and noticed that a majority of the trees had reached maturity. Trees, like people, eventually die, so he contacted Doug Grimm at Grimm’s Gardens, and asked for Doug’s professional opinion on the projected longevity of the trees.
“Doug told me that, in 20 years, we would lose 70 to 80 percent of the white pine trees on the south side,” John said during a recent interview. “In addition, there are NO trees planted on the north side of the cemetery.”
“Nearly everyone who contacts the city about buying a burial plot asks for a plot beneath a tree,” John said. “And we don’t have any anymore. Not only that, but in 20 years, we wouldn’t have any trees!”
He couldn’t imagine Steele Cemetery without trees—the trees that shade visitors as they think about loved ones. The trees that provide shelter for the birds that chirp and sing, and make the cemetery a peaceful place of solitude. Without trees, the cemetery would become a white rectangular blotch where our loved ones would lie beneath blighted, burned grass. Visitors would bake in the sun, and silence would fill the air. John couldn’t allow that to happen to a place that he has loved since childhood. So he sprang into action.
He visited several cemeteries in southeast Nebraska and asked managers about their long-term plans. Then, he approached Falls City’s cemetery board with a strategic plan that would keep Steele Cemetery beautiful for generations to come.
Mayor Jerry Oliver had recently appointed new members to the cemetery board, and fortunately, all of them shared John’s vision. The board approved the purchase of 126 conifers (evergreen trees), which were planted right after Memorial Day. The new trees should reach approximately 20 feet tall while the old ones die and are removed. Volunteers Rick Martin, Dwayne Dixon, and John have kept the trees alive by watering nearly every day. Preparation and  watering takes about five minutes per tree. (Yeah, you do the math. And John didn’t want to be mentioned in this story?) Cemetery sexton Chuck Ferris has been a godsend, as well.
In addition to the tree-planting project, the board voted to update the landscaping around the entrance, and to create a “living fence” of 52 bushes on the northeast boundary line. Both of those projects have been completed, too (and take watering). The total cost was $16,000, all of which came from the cemetery board fund.
“Without the board’s courage and foresight, none of this would have happened,” John said. So kudos to board members Karl Steele, Carla Capps, Deb Harris, Steve Hollens, Pam Scott, and Paul Kiekhaefer. (Because of a conflict of interest, however, Paul Kiekhaefer recused himself from the vote.)
However, that’s not all.
In September 2016, Grimm’s Gardens will plant 128 conifers and deciduous trees on the north side, providing shade in that area, and a diversity of trees that will make the cemetery even more beautiful. In addition, the board will install a two-panel vinyl fence on the southeast boundary line, and will place a power line that now snakes through the cemetery underground.
All of this “second phase” of tree planting will be done at a cost of $17,000, with $7,000 coming from the board fund, and $10,000 from a donation that was given by John and his wife, Kathy. The two panel fence and moving the power line underground are additional expenses for the cemetery board and/or the city.
But that’s not all either.
An endowment fund was created through the Richardson Foundation that will guarantee the maintenance and upkeep of the trees for as long as the cemetery is there. The fund was started with an initial donation of $10,000 by John and Kathy. The agreement with the Foundation states that the principle cannot be used—only the earnings (interest) can. In addition, the only projects for which the returns can be used are 1) the establishment, care and maintenance of the trees, 2) care and repair of headstones and monuments of those with no
family or other source of funding, 3) new capital projects such as road paving, and 4) other maintenance or improvements. In other words, the money can only be used on the cemetery, with a priority placed on the trees.
What foresight! What a gift to this city, its residents, and our loved ones.
But folks, John and Kathy Martin, and the cemetery board cannot do this alone. This project is long-term. John started it because he wanted to do something to make a difference for future generations. But this isn’t just for the future. It’s for the past as well. It’s for every soul that lies beneath a tree at Steele Cemetery. It’s for John’s mom, her grandpa, your mom, your grandma, your son, your cousin, or your friend.
Reach into your pocket and dig deeply to help build the endowment fund. Help keep Steele Cemetery beautiful for the future and the past. Remember this fund in your will. Donations can be made at F & M Bank, Attention: Kevin Malone, with checks made out to The Richardson Foundation. Write the “Steele Cemetery Fund” in the memo line.
Those are the specifics–the details, the things that can be measured, the things that can be done today to ensure tomorrow. What cannot be measured is the debt of gratitude owed to an insightful board, and the vision of one man—a man whose passion began as a little boy who listened to his mother’s stories while sitting beneath a tree.  

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