Wednesday, April 9, 1997
Crews restore some dignity
to long-dead

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The white van inched up the crumbling road that snakes through Hillcrest Cemetery.

At the top of a hill, the van stopped and a work crew hopped out. Armed with Weed Eaters, they began their daily round of cutting and trimming. In four years of hard work, they'd made excellent progress against 15 years of neglect.

''What you're looking at is a minor miracle,'' said the van's driver, Paul Steimle.

He pointed to the cemetery's rolling hills dotted with tombstones and grave markers. On one hillside, next to a section reserved for veterans, the breeze caught a brand-new American flag and slapped its rope quietly against the flagpole.

Last week, Hillcrest was alive with the crackle of police radios and the buzz of TV news crews. They had come to see that the bones of Love Griffin - allegedly taken by Karen Long and Christopher Horstmeyer after a late-night party for two at the cemetery - were returned to their final resting place.

Fifty-one years ago, when Love Griffin was laid to rest, Hillcrest was cared for by the Union Baptist Church. But after a fire claimed the cemetery's records and the church pulled out, the trees and grass took over. Since 1993, Hamilton County crews have been the only caretakers.

It has taken a thoughtless outrage to remind us that when we let cemeteries slip away, we risk doing the same to the people buried there.

Uncovering Hillcrest

Four years ago, an army tank could not have made it past Hillcrest's front gate. There was no road or cemetery in sight.

The 12 acres of gravestones were covered by a tangle of weeds, tall grass and fallen trees. Graves had been opened by vandals, erosion and the burrowing of gophers, woodchucks and moles.

''Overgrowth was everywhere,'' Paul Steimle said. ''It was a jungle.''

As field supervisor for community service at Hamilton County's Adult Probation Department, his job takes him to Hillcrest five days a week. He brings offenders ordered to do community service.

Since 1993, his crews have cut grass, chopped down trees, righted tombstones and, sometimes, buried bones.

''I've had my hands shaken and been hugged by family members who came here looking for their loved one's grave and found it for the first time in years,'' he said.

To make their search even easier, he plans to resurface the cemetery's roads, unplug drain pipes to reduce erosion and document the location of every grave.

He carried a clipboard jammed with slips of paper, one for every tombstone in the cemetery.

''Now the names on these slips have to be entered into a computer,'' he said. ''If someone can't find a grave, all they have to do is call us.''

This sounded like Paul Steimle was going above and beyond the call of duty. After all, the cemetery had been abandoned for years.

He disagreed.

''We owe it to these people,'' he said. ''To ignore them again would be a sin.''

Sadness and doubt

Inez Harris saw her father's skull on TV. Love Griffin's oldest daughter watched it go back in his grave.

''I did not cry,'' she said. ''I'm 78. I don't cry that much anymore.''

The man whose bones were disturbed did not have an easy life. His wife died young, and he raised their seven children by himself. Ten years after his wife's death, he was gone, too. Cancer killed him on July 18, 1946. He was 47.

''He was a big man, five-eleven and one-half, 190 pounds. But because he dug holes for the waterworks, he wasn't fat. He had muscle on him.''

Love Griffin lived up to his first name. ''On Sundays during the Depression, he would walk from our home in the East End to the stockyards on the West End,'' his daughter recalled.

''They would let him milk the cows for free. He'd walk back home carrying the milk in jugs. That's the only way us kids had milk to drink.''

When Inez Harris saw her father's open grave on TV, she blamed herself for what happened.

''If only I had kept going out,'' she said ruefully. ''I haven't been in 10 years. That's how things get run down.''

She took a deep breath.

''I couldn't have helped the other graves. But I could have saved his.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.