Keepers of history

Paula and Gary Wenell stand next to the grave of Captain John Matthews at Eureka Cemetery in Newport. Matthews established the Yaquina Bay News in 1892, the first newspaper in Lincoln County. (Photo by Steve Card)

For the past 14 years, Gary and Paula Wenell have been involved as keepers of history at Eureka Cemetery in Newport. They began as the cemetery managers in 2005, working in that capacity for several years. After their stint as managers, they served as members of the Eureka Cemetery & Mausoleum Association. But this month, they are retiring from those positions.

One doesn’t always think about cemeteries from a historical perspective, but the people who were the movers and shakers when the city of Newport was founded are buried there. And the Wenells have done a great deal to share those stories with others.

“We both love history so much,” said Paula, adding that coming on as cemetery managers was a good fit for them. “We did different events and things like that. We just fell into it. It’s something that we really enjoyed and we wanted to do.”

“We started off just by trying to learn what was going on,” said Gary. “Most of my life I have been a pastor, so I’ve been in a number of cemeteries, but it’s different visiting than administering it. At any rate, we learned.

“Being able to come out here, even though it’s an odd way to phrase it, there’s living history,” Gary said. “As people come out and decorate the graves … if you’re willing to sit and listen, they’ll tell stories about their loved ones, give you some family history, and that is just so delightful.”

It’s also a good way for young people to gain an understanding about the historical side of cemeteries. Gary recalled leading cemetery tours for children from Sam Case Elementary School in Newport. “We would come to Sam Case’s grave, and almost immediately they would say, ‘Who’s buried here?’ and I would say, ‘You read it.’ They would see it, and they could really relate,” he said.

Sue deBelloy, secretary of the cemetery association, said the Wenells were instrumental in getting cemetery records up to date so that family members could more easily locate the gravesites of loved ones. She said early records were all on 3x5 cards, and there was no backup system. Had there been a fire, all of those records would have been lost. Gary went through the card file and got all of the information onto a computer database, deBelloy said.

“The filing system was in chaos,” remembered Gary. “We tried to do it (organize files) and what I couldn’t do, Sue really took over.”

The cemetery association doesn’t have the funding to make that computer database available to the general public, but they can help people find the graves of family members. “They can call us, and if it’s after hours or if they’re going to be coming in on the weekend, we’ll put a flag to show them where it’s at,” said deBelloy. The office hours at the cemetery are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. The phone number is 541-265-7282.

Although the Wenells won’t be involved at Eureka Cemetery as they have been in past years, they will be on hand for this year’s annual Memorial Day service at 11 a.m. on Monday, May 27. Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer will be the guest speaker, a crew from U.S. Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay will be posting the colors, and the Sweet Adelines will be singing. And after the ceremony, Gary will once again lead tours around the cemetery.

Even though they are retiring from their board positions, the Wenells will always have a connection to Eureka Cemetery, and some day, they will be joining the ranks of those buried there. “We have our plots here,” Gary said. Mark White, who has been the cemetery manager since 2015, put it this way, “Gary, I’ll be the last guy to ever let you down.”

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