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Cemetery caretaker finally rests near granddaughter, son

June 9, 2018

In this April 9, 2011 photo, Vernon Peterson pauses inside Rock Hill Cemetery just outside the Town of Unison, Va. Peterson has been the caretaker of Rock Hill for over 50 years. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via AP)

BLUE RIDGE, Va. (AP) — Vernon Peterson knew where his story would end.

For years, he had walked past his own headstone in the all-black Virginia cemetery he looked after for more than six decades. There, off a dirt road in Loudoun County, beyond a stone wall, the volunteer caretaker could often be found cutting the grass, clearing weeds and, at times, replacing a frayed American flag. And so, it only made sense that once he died, that was where he would finally rest.

“Waiting for Jesus,” read his prepared headstone.

“Only thing missing was the date,” said his sister Gloria Peterson Green.

Officially, May 28, will go down as the date of Peterson’s death. But in a way, the 87-year-old’s demise can also be linked to a different date: April 16, 2007, the day of the Virginia Tech massacre.

When devastating events occur, people often talk about “ripples” to express how it affects more than just the immediate victims. It’s a gentle word that conjures an image of a pebble being tossed into a pond, followed by a rhythmic, outward flow of water. The only problem with that image is that those movements happen quickly and then end abruptly.

That is not often how grief moves through a family. It is not mercifully fast. It can take years, or even decades, to fully show its toll.

It is hard to speak about Peterson’s death without also talking about two losses that came before it. Last Saturday, following a 1 p.m. service at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Middleburg, Peterson was buried in Rock Hill Cemetery, where other graves also bear the Peterson name. Among them are Peterson’s parents, aunts and uncles — and two relatives he never expected to outlive: his granddaughter, Erin, and his son, Grafton.

Each of those deaths caused ripples that crashed, slowly but eventually, into the other.

“Grafton and Vernon were really devoted to each other,” Green said. “He never got over the death of Grafton. And I don’t think Grafton ever got over what happened to Erin.”

Erin Peterson was an 18-year-old freshman at Virginia Tech when a student gunman killed her and 31 other people before turning the gun on himself.

She was born just days after Grafton Peterson had lost another daughter, Carla, to cancer at the age of 8. When Erin was little, she would sneak out of bed to watch ESPN with her father. Later, when she played basketball, she could glance at him from the court, and he knew exactly what she was saying. He called her “my best friend.”

After her death, Grafton pulled the quilt from her bed and used it until it was worn thin. His wife of 33 years, Celeste Peterson, then made him another out of their daughter’s T-shirts.

For three months he wrapped himself in it daily, until he had a fatal heart attack on March 18, 2016.

Celeste said she has not been to the cemetery since Grafton was buried there next to Erin and Carla, but she planned to go Saturday for her father-in-law’s services.

“Grafton was the best parts of his father,” she said. “He really was. And I think his father knew that.”

When he was younger, Grafton used to follow Vernon Peterson to work and learn the skills that later served him as he oversaw major projects as a construction supervisor. Celeste said both Grafton and his father shared a strong work ethic, a high value on family and a penchant for taking care of others.

In the days before her father-in-law died — as he drifted in and out of sleep and consciousness — family members heard him talking often to Grafton, Celeste said.

“Because of the type of person my husband was, if he could help his father in any way make this transition, I know he would be there,” she said. “Family was just really, really important to him.”

Family is why Vernon Peterson first started taking care of the cemetery, which has 120 family-owned lots. A Korean War veteran, he returned from service in 1955 and noticed that the property was overgrown. He gathered some children to help him and started pulling weeds and cutting the grass.

“I got a lot of kin in here,” he told a Washington Post reporter for an article in 2011. “I had to do something.”

And he just kept doing it, decade after decade, without pay or an expectation of gratitude. The previous caretaker, who is now buried in that cemetery, had been eager to hand over the record books and responsibility. Later, as he grew older, Vernon worried about whether he would be able to hand those to someone else.

“If somebody was to take it over, I wish they would step up so I could learn them what I know,” he said in that 2011 article. “But somebody has to take an interest. And it can’t just be anybody. It has to be a special person.”

Local historian Eugene Scheel said he knows the issue weighed on Vernon, whom he called a good friend. Every year, Scheel sent his African American history class, taken by teachers toward their accreditation, to talk to Vernon.

“He would ask us, ‘What is going to happen when I’m gone, because I can’t do this forever?’ ” Scheel said.

Green said Vernon’s second wife, Sharon, and other family members have taken care of the cemetery since her brother grew too ill last year to do it. Eric Lyles, who knew Vernon and has relatives buried in the cemetery, said they are doing a great job of maintaining it.

Lyles, who runs the family-owned funeral home that handled Vernon’s arrangements, said he expected about 300 people to attend Saturday’s services.

That a crowd would gather in a meticulously manicured cemetery that could have easily been forgotten over the years is a testament to Vernon’s quiet work — and the ripples he leaves behind.

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Information from: The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com

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