On a late September afternoon, while Centerville squared itself for the annual celebration of pancakes, parades, queen contests, school bands, and more pancakes, a city within the city was silent.
A half-mile from the world’s largest square on Centerville’s west side a car’s tires crunched gravel like a child with a spoon full of milk and Cheerios.
“Oakland Cemetery, Arch of Remembrance,” are the words memorialized in stone above the arch entrance.
The car with the passer-by crept, showing respect for the sea of marble and granite facings etched with tears.
Back across town, the large, festive stage where a queen would be crowned and a band would play had been rolled into its position since the first of the week.
“Welcome to the 71st Pancake Day,” are the words stenciled above the red, white, and blue bunting tacked to the stage’s border. A Pancake Day volunteer’s laughter could be heard over the muted sounds of cars trying to find a parking place.
One-half mile separated celebration from reverence. Tears of laughter, Tears of loss. How could a city of 5,500 be both anticipating the vapor of a parade while contemplating the permanence of death?
Ed Reznicek and Nicole Whisler
Rollie Reznicek, Centerville’s 57th Mayor, and his wife Lucy live in two cities. They have taken part in Pancake Day Parades, and they have been the only car in the cemetery.
“Our son Ed was killed in an auto accident in 1981,” said Reznicek. “Beginning in 1981, Lucy and I made many trips to our son’s grave. During our visits, we became aware that the cemetery was in need of some care and attention. Over time our concern spurred us to gather other like-minded people to work on the grounds and make repairs.”
Cathy and Jerry Whisler met in fifth grade. The couple has been together ever since. Cathy and Jerry spent their early lives attending college. Now with their college degrees, they would return to Centerville, leave following their careers, to finally return and stay.
The Whislers would complete their family with a son Mason and daughter Nicole.
Nicole was born the year Ed Reznicek was killed. She was married with a two-and-a-half-year-old son, living in Anamosa, on June 1, 2012. Eleven days before her 30th birthday Nicole was killed in an auto accident.
The Big Idea
The Indian Summer afternoon was exhaling. A dry wind scattered the few impatient leaves who had already let loose.
Cathy Whisler, standing near the Veteran’s Memorial Park inside the Oakland Cemetery, hardly noticed the tumbling leaves near her feet. Her gaze was fixed forward, examining then admiring the manifestation of what only three short years ago was nothing more than an inspiration.
Oakland Cemetery is the silent city within a city. The kept buildings and the active grounds invite reciprocal life rather than a surrender to stoney regimentation.
“I wanted to think of something I could do for the cemetery,” began Whisler. “Not as a memorial, but something that would have universal use for the veterans as well as the families and friends who visit here. ... I wanted to think global as Nicole would have.”
Oakland Cemetery’s newest advocate remembers the days that turned into weeks while she kept searching for just the right idea.
“During 2016, I began thinking I wanted to contribute something to the Oakland Cemetery,” she said. “I wanted something that would accomplish three things: Something that would honor the veterans, something that would be permanent, and something that would be useful to all.”
“Then one day three years ago, while I was driving past the cemetery on my way home the idea of a belltower that could play music came into my head,” recalls Whisler. “I thought about different music like honoring, reflectiveness, meditative, and comforting. When someone, anyone brings flowers to a grave maybe bells or music playing in the background will comfort them.”
Something permanent? Something that would honor the veterans? Something that would be useful to all?
“I researched bell towers and music,” Whisler said. “I wanted it built in the USA. Nothing with plastic parts. Then, I narrowed my search down to a 50-year-old company that made chime and bell towers. They had great reviews, and they turned out to be fabulous. The owner brought the system down here himself.”
Like winter’s first frost etching on glass, Whisler’s thoughts of her contribution to the cemetery had crystallized.
“When I was ready with my idea I first approached the Friends of Oakland Cemetery with my proposal,” she recalled. “I asked them if I gave a seed donation toward a chime and bell tower, would they approve the project?”
The Friends of Oakland Cemetery is an all-volunteer, donation-based organization that overlooks the overall health of the cemetery’s 62-plus acres. Centerville’s former Mayor, Rollie Reznicek was now the group’s chairman. Two city council members also donate their time to serve on the committee’s board.
Whisler pitched her vision, “I explained what the chime system did in terms of how it could play, filling in the gaps during a veteran’s funeral for example. The chime’s clock can play music throughout the day. The chime’s servers carry a library of over 1,000 songs, hymns, and salutes such as Taps, Battle Hymn of the Republic, and all the military anthems.”
“The Friends’ answer was, ‘Yes! Let’s do it,’” smiles Whisler.
Next up, Cathy Whisler would take her one-woman vision in front of the “big committee,” which would be the city council. One more time the chime and bell tower was explained. One more time Whisler offered a seed donation.
“Yes,” said the city council in a unanimous vote, 5-0
Hurricane Harry with all the wind he could carry blew another gust as Whisler’s right arm raised to hold down her hair. Yet to realize the wind was now to her back.
— Cathy Whisler
Cathy Whisler is proving that one person with one idea, pushed by inspiration, can affect a community and beyond. Whisler, hesitant to accept accolades for herself defects, “There have been 100 people helping me. It takes a village, just like they say.”
Visitors who drive into the cemetery from its west side, at the East Van Buren Street entrance, will notice the new 30-foot sandstone tower first.
A 30-foot limestone and metal style bell tower blends with the nearby chapel’s architecture in both texture and color. The aesthetically pleasing structure’s diameter is six-by-six, four times. Three air-raid looking speakers still below the giant bronze bell, espousing remarkably clear sound from the tower’s belfry. State-of-the-art servers power the large speakers.
The 62-acre silent city within a city at long last has a voice. The universal language of music.
The chime system is a clock and plays music at scheduled times throughout the day. The structure’s chime sound system plays from a library of over 1,000 selections of religious, holiday, civic, and military music.
“Imagine funeral directors being able to call-up a favorite song with a few taps on their cellphone as a family enters the cemetery,” comments Whisler. “It can play for anyone on special days such as birthdays and anniversaries. The electricians are still working out the networking.”
Whisler explains the care taken to provide the acoustics throughout the 62-acre cemetery.
“The chime and bell company sent representatives here and professionally pointed the speakers, taking into account the wind loads and directions,” she said.
With marble and granite shadows lengthening headstones, the business owner, volunteer, wife, mother, and grandmother takes a rare deep breath.
“You can’t help but feel good,” she said. “And I’ll tell you, that when the chimes play certain songs, I get goosebumps. You can’t help it! Every time I hear Battle Hymn of the Republic, I have goosebumps going up and down.”
Cathy Whisler’s seed donation with the hard work of a village has now grown into a 30-foot chime and bell tower. Her special seeds would continue to spread, blossoming into an entirely new but companion project for the cemetery.
Phase Two: Liberty Park
Liberty Park is the name chosen for an additional project inspired by Whisler’s chime and bell tower. With the tower as the focal point, phase two will cultivate an area that physically connects to the existing Veteran’s Mall.
“Many of our donations come from veterans such as Rollie,” said Whisler. “Many of the contractors are also veterans.”
As the first phase nears completion with the chime and bell tower in place and close to being completed, the second phase is already planned.
A park-like area destination area that will bring additional honor and focus to the veterans will be completed next spring. The park will feature walkways and seating throughout. People can reflect and enjoy meditative music playing at various times throughout the day. The area will be landscaped with trees and bushes off-set by wrought-iron railings and retaining walls.
The City of Centerville will eventually place a columbarium (placement for cremains) in Liberty Park to meet public demand for cremation. Whisler estimated that between 40- to 60-percent of funerals are cremations, if not more.
“Black dirt has been donated to level the area over winter, so it doesn’t look nasty and unfinished over winter,” Whisler said. “And then when phase two starts we will begin working on the sidewalks, getting more landscaping, while searching for donations to keep going with such things as the retaining-wall that will have a black railing on top. We really are creating a whole new section.”
Friends of Oakland Cemetery
Oakland Cemetery was started around 1851 and has never had as good of friends as it has today. Friends of Oakland Cemetery is an 18-year-old organization that is separate from the city.
Lucy Reznicek founded the Friends during 2001 with her husband, Rollie, securing a 501©(3) classification as a non-profit organization. Donations and grants are the literal gas for the Friends to not only maintain the 62 acres but to improve and enhance the cemetery’s appearance and educate its history.
Viewing the area, looking at the proposed park’s on-site billboard, the crystal clear songs and melodies sound euphonious.
“To get to this point we have had generous donations and grants,” observes a thankful Whisler. “The project has had hours and hours of labor donated.”
“One point that I really want to make,” begins Whisler, “is that Rollie and I were very close partners throughout the project. We have worked shoulder-to-shoulder throughout. Eighteen years ago when the Rezniceks began coming to the cemetery, they noticed the chapel and the grounds needed some care, so they formed the volunteer organization.”
“The group has done a lot of work here,” she continued. “They did all the tuck-pointing on the chapel, re-tiled the roof, sent the stain glass windows off to be corrected. They planted all the trees along Freedom Lane. They have helped to organize the new section of the cemetery. They have accomplished 18 big projects, one a year with just donations.”
Stained-glass shadows fell on the still deep-green summer grass below. Painting it marigold, cerise, and periwinkle.
Whisler believes a cemetery is the reflection of its community.
“We had industry looking to come here that actually told Rollie when he was Mayor that the first things they wanted to see here were our cemetery and our schools,” Whisler said. “You can judge a city by how well they take care of the people who can not take care of themselves, they said.”
The Silent City
“I heard a friend use the term ‘silent city,’” begins Whisler. “I understood the term to mean that every single name spread across 62-acres, resembling a city represents a person exactly like ourselves.”
Tires on gravel crunch like a spoon full of milk and Cherries. The passer-by hesitates, admiring the new 30-foot chime/ bell tower. Cathy Whisler looking across a maze of marble and stone representing a roll-call in transition.
“Those people were rowdy children, they had children, they celebrated anniversaries, held jobs, big and small, and grumbled about the same mundane chores that we do,” Whisler said. “And then this very full life becomes silent. All of our lives will become silent.”