Retired general manager of Lexington Cemetery made it his life's work

ctruman@herald-leader.comFebruary 10, 2013 

When Dan Scalf was a freshman at the University of Kentucky, without a car and looking for summer work, he applied for a job at Lexington Cemetery.

It was minimum-wage work, which in 1965 was $1.25 an hour. He watered flowers the whole summer.

A fellow groundsman told Scalf that once he'd started working at the cemetery, he'd probably never leave. The cemetery's third general manager, Richard Floyd Allison, was more blunt.

"Anybody who would walk from the college would work," Scalf said Allison told him.

Allison, who died in 1984, established the cemetery's flower garden and planted flowering trees along roads throughout the cemetery. The cemetery would still have been striking without Allison's work, but it would not be the blooming wonder it is today, Scalf said.

Scalf, 67, retired Feb. 1 as only the fifth general manager in Lexington Cemetery's 165-year history. He is succeeded by Mark Durbin.

Durbin said Scalf "stuck with the original traditions, maintaining the grounds immaculately. ... We haven't veered from the vision Mr. Allison had. We never take down trees. We work the lots into the landscape itself."

Ask many Lexingtonians about Lexington Cemetery and they'll talk of its beauty and its spot in history. It's where statesman Henry Clay and University of Kentucky men's basketball coach Adolph Rupp are buried, and it's one of Lexington's most beautiful places to simply walk around and ponder the city's history.

The Lexington Cemetery is a private nonprofit organization established in 1849 as a public cemetery. It is administered by a board of directors.

Scalf is keenly aware of the beauty of the place, but he prefers to discuss the personal interactions he has had with families. He also wants area residents to know that the cemetery has enough space left on its 170 acres to continue burying people for as long as 100 more years.

"A cemetery is basically a history of the community," he said. "Most of the people buried in any cemetery are just common folks who lived and died and raised their families, and served their communities."

He is affected most by some of the individual touches on the memorials: a sheriff's badge, an Ashland Oil truck, a rod and reel.

And he is fond of this quote attributed to 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone: "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their loyalty to high ideals and their regard for the laws of the land."

How a city cares for its dead also is a telling indicator of the quality of its people, he said.

Scalf was assistant general manager of the cemetery for 27 years before being named general manager in 1997.

In 1970, Lexington Cemetery dealt mostly with burials, Scalf said. Today, the cemetery offers everything from mausoleum space to niche boulders and benches, and memorials for those whose remains are buried elsewhere.

He credits Allison with imbuing him with the meaning behind all the trees and shrubs. "When a family comes out, the beauty created by flowers and trees comforts them. It is a solace to them."

If he had known that he was destined to make a career at the cemetery, Scalf said, he would have majored in business, but he thought he was becoming a teacher. He taught a short time before returning to the cemetery for the bulk of his career.

For his longevity at the cemetery, Scalf, a member of Immanuel Baptist Church, takes no credit.

"I give God the credit. It's not because I'm some wise, highly intelligent person," he said.

The most stressful time during Scalf's tenure was the 2003 ice storm, which closed the cemetery for 2 1/2 weeks. Scalf found himself with splintered trees and no local tree company that already wasn't working overtime.

He brought in help from Louisville and Cincinnati, and he hired part-time workers "to rake every inch of the cemetery from front to back."

Although a cemeterian by profession, Scalf is a woodworker by hobby. During an interview, he pulled out a pen made from bamboo and a key chain with a long, slender wooden barrel attached. It's Scalf's own design, and it's for crematorium ashes.

What is Scalf's favorite part of the cemetery? That would be in section 46, an area with lots of mature trees.

"People like trees," he said. "They like water."

But section 46 has a special meaning to Scalf. It's where he plans to be buried.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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