Evergreen Cemetery clean-up reveals lost family gravesite
It’s typical to think of graveyards as gloomy, bleak and desolate places.
But on a recent spring-like day in February, Evergreen Cemetery bustled with cheery workers wearing breezy smiles, and echoed with the sounds of youthful exuberance.
Almost 50 students from Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University had turned out, along with a dozen or so other volunteers, to help Welford Williams (pictured above, with students) reach his mother’s side for a long-overdue visit.
Williams, age 87, last visited his mother’s grave in 1972. He had just retired from the U.S. Postal Service, and brought his six-year-old daughter Bridgette to the cemetery.
Forty years ago, he told the volunteers, the vegetation was already beginning to take over. But Williams could recall a time when the cemetery was nothing but grass and headstones. As a 10-year-old, he had hunted for Easter eggs among the grave markers.
“[This] was wide open then,” he marveled, gesturing at the tall trees and heavy overgrowth surrounding his mother’s grave. “It looked just like Hollywood Cemetery.”
In the years since, however, vegetation has all but obliterated grave sites, roads and pathways, making it impossible for Williams to get his bearings and find the plot.
So it was only natural that Williams’ ears perked up when, at a meeting of the Henrico Historical Society, he heard John Shuck mention a project to spruce up Evergreen.
“My mother is buried there,” he told Shuck.
Ever since, said Shuck, he’s been on a mission to find Pearl Williams.
A recent winner of the Award of Merit from the Henrico Preservation Advisory Committee, Shuck began visiting cemeteries while pursuing his interest in genealogical research.
On his first visit to Evergreen in 2008, he recalls being completely overwhelmed. The cemetery, which sprawls along the city-county border in eastern Henrico, was used as an illegal dump for decades. On one early trip there, Shuck and his fellow volunteers took just two hours to fill a large dumpster with tires from the site.
“You had to bushwhack back then,” he said. “You couldn’t walk through here.”
Since then, Shuck and his colleagues Vicki and John Stephens (who also received awards from HPAC) have spent many a Saturday clearing wide paths through the underbrush, uncovering graves and even sections of paved road. The addition of so many VCU and VUU volunteers, he says, has provided a huge boost of manpower to the group and accelerated the pace of the clean-up project.
And in mid-February, just off one of the newly-cleared paths, volunteer Dave Campbell stumbled upon the grave of Pearl E. Williams.
“I was just exploring,” recalled Campbell. “We’ve been looking for it for two years. [I thought], We’re never gonna find this thing – and then there it was. I just stood staring at if for a minute. It was almost mystical.”
“The way it was standing up there,” added John Shuck’s wife, Debbie, “it was just waiting to be found.”
A week later, Welford Williams arrived at Evergreen with wife, several daughters and a few grandchildren in tow. Led to his mother’s side, he placed flowers around the grave.
“I don’t think Momma will mind me stepping on her,” he said with a smile as he arranged the flowers.
“She’s probably glad to see you,” called out a family member.
After everyone posed for pictures, Williams said he wanted to address the students. Passing around photos of his parents, and a baby picture of himself, he described the night that his mother was laid to rest.
She died three weeks after Pearl Harbor, he told the volunteers, on Christmas night. The funeral was held so late in the evening that car headlights had to be used to illuminate the grave.
Among the family members that Williams introduced was his daughter Bridgette, who had stood on a tree stump by the grave on his last visit in 1972.
Today a pre-kindergarten teacher at Glen Lea Elementary School, Bridgette Williams was ecstatic at seeing the long-lost site again.
“This is incredible,” she exclaimed, noting that her cousins in Philadelphia had been thrilled when she contacted them with the news. “One, she’s crying, because she never got to see her grandmother’s grave.
“They can’t come from Philly,” she said, “but I’m sending pictures.”
Her sister Winifred was quick to chime in with high praise for the student volunteers who had helped bring the moment about.
“You always hear about the bad [regarding young people],” said Winifred. “You never hear about the good, about kids like this.”
Their father, eyes shining, clearly echoed the sentiment.
“What a good-looking bunch of young people -- I don’t see no ugly faces nowhere!” Welford Williams told the smiling students. “I will never forget this day, meeting you, and finding my mother’s grave.
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