Master metalworker repairs fence surrounding historic cemetery plot
Physical Plant employee uses his talent to preserve Southwestern history
Five of Southwestern’s early presidents are buried in the IOOF Cemetery located just behind campus. Unfortunately, time has taken a toll on some of some of their resting places.
Bill Jones, Southwestern’s university historian, was particularly concerned about the family plot of Southwestern’s third president, Rev. John Howell McLean. Rev. McLean attended and taught at McKenzie College, one of Southwestern’s four “root” colleges. He was brought to Southwestern by its first president, Francis Asbury Mood, to help raise money for the college, and taught “mental and moral philosophy” while he served as president from 1891-1898.
The McLean family plot is 20 feet x 20 feet and is one of the largest plots in the cemetery. The ornate cast iron fence surrounding it had been hit by cars, causing the sides to cave in. Several pieces of the fence were missing, including two corner posts.
In late January, Jones asked Joe LePage, director of Physical Plant, whether his employees might be able to help fix the fence. LePage and several colleagues examined the fence and considered the options, including removing the fence or repairing it.
“After much conversation, we agreed we had to make every attempt possible to save this once-beautiful fence,” LePage said. Ornate iron fences such as the one around the McLean plot were popular in cemeteries from the 1870s to 1920s.
Much of the task then fell to Tony Orcutt, a mechanic in Physical Plant who usually spends his time repairing lawn mowers and other small engines. Orcutt, who describes himself as a “Jack of all trades,” took the mangled fence back to his shop, completely disassembled it and took inventory. Two post caps, six filagree panels and various pieces of connecting hardware were missing. Numerous pickets were badly bent.
Orcutt was able to straighten the bent pickets by heating them cherry red and pounding them back into shape. He made some new fence rails out of steel.
The biggest challenge was trying to find the missing fence parts. A few were found by excavating the area around the fence. Others were obtained by searching the Internet.
“We found someone in Kalzmazoo, Michigan, who had two matching Gothic post caps,” Orcutt said. He fashioned new corner posts using a combination of the old parts and new parts.
Before re-installing the fence, Physical Plant employees re-graded the area around the fence and poured new post and support piers. The restored fence was installed in March.
President Jake B. Schrum had a short ceremony at the site in April to thank those who contributed to the project.
“Southwestern is not in charge of maintaining cemeteries, but we are in charge of maintaining the legacy of people who have given their lives to Southwestern,” he said.
University Historian Bill Jones said McLean had been a “brilliant student” at McKenzie College, which was located near Paris, Texas. One of his sons, McDugald McLean, attended Southwestern and was one of the first Rhodes Scholars from Texas.
Jones noted that planning for what is now known as the Cullen Building was started during McLean’s tenure as president of Southwestern. McLean also wrote the material that appears on the monument for President Mood that is located in front of Mood Hall.
“It’s great to have these memories,” Jones said. “It makes you realize how much history Southwestern has.”