Even after spending every working day as an adult at Lakewood Cemetery, Ron Gjerde still slips through the gates of this peaceful, contemplative place just to drive around the grounds at night.
“On nice evenings, we love to come here. It’s so quiet,” he said. “Beautiful.”
For nearly 50 years, Gjerde has worked to make Lakewood a worthy final resting place. At the end of the year, he will retire as cemetery president. But his unofficial job at this 250-acre final resting place on the southeast shore of Minneapolis’ Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun) has been caretaker of memories.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s been the best job I could think of.”
The truth is, near the end of 1969, the folks who ran cemeteries, including the one at the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and 36th Street, weren’t that confident in the appeal of working there. Even for a place as picturesque as Lakewood. So, while the job involved ensuring that gravediggers dug holes in the right place and writing the names of the dead by hand in a ledger, the “Help Wanted” notice wasn’t exactly forthcoming.
“Immediate opening in small, congenial office w/old established firm near Henn. & Lake for young, neat appearing man for general clerical office duties,” read the classified ad that caught Gjerde’s eye.
“I didn’t know what it was until after I drove through the gate,” he said. “I was totally surprised. I thought, ‘Gee whiz, this is a cemetery.’ ”
Rather than turn around, Gjerde went on in.
During his interview with the general manager, “he asked me, ‘Well, what do you think about working in a cemetery?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m a little bit intrigued.’ ”
Not yet 18, and not yet graduated from Minneapolis West High School, the young man who grew up nearby decided he wanted the job.
After “pestering” for a second interview, he got it.
Tasks included checking grave sites before a burial and guiding funeral processions to their sites. He also had to keep records of every grave occupant on notecards.
“Women’s cards were salmon-pink,” he said. “Men’s were manila-colored.”
Over the years, the jobs would change.
He took classes at the University of Minnesota — accounting, business law and effective letter-writing — and was later promoted to office manager, then executive vice president and, on Dec. 7, 1989, president.
The business, too, has changed.
Lakewood was founded as a “rural” cemetery in 1871, when the population of Minneapolis was 13,000 and the city’s southern boundary was Franklin Avenue. Visitors came by horse and buggy on a dirt road.
While Lakewood has had a crematory since 1908, Gjerde said that when he started in 1969, there were 200 to 300 cremations a year. Now there are 1,400.
As a result, a cemetery that officials once expected would be filled to capacity by now has enough room to double the 180,000 remains interred there.
Notable graves include those for former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, former Gov. Floyd B. Olson, and Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, and their daughter Marcia — all three killed in a 2002 plane crash.
Gjerde, who has for years led free walking tours on Memorial Day, said one of Lakewood’s saddest stories is that of James Alexander Mackenzie. The maker of a harp-piano hybrid is buried in an unmarked grave near a monument to Mackenzie’s wife, Eva, and their two young daughters.
The girls were killed and Eva critically injured when their train derailed near Toledo, Ohio, in 1891.
Upon returning to Minneapolis, Mackenzie learned that a fire had destroyed his studio and all his instruments. Eva died a month later.
The monument says Eva “gave her life trying to rescue her only two children.” Their memorial stone says the girls were “taken in the bloom of life.”
Also etched on the stone are the words: “Good night, Papa.” Mackenzie took his own life in 1905. There was no one to pay for a stone.
Gjerde, 66, said the hardest part of retiring will be “not coming to work every day in this beautiful place.” So he plans to hang out a bit longer, working for the next year with the cemetery’s heritage foundation and, maybe, continuing to lead those free tours.
And, yes, when the day comes, Gjerde said he plans to be buried here.
And what would a tour guide say while stopped at the grave of Ron Gjerde?
Maybe he would be remembered as the longest-tenured president in the history of Lakewood.
Or, perhaps it would be said that he was the catalyst behind building the Garden Mausoleum. Or that he helped make Lakewood a more popular place by hosting events that go beyond burial.
What he hopes, he said, is that his love of Lakewood comes through.
“It’s near and dear to my heart, that’s for sure.”
James Walsh • 612-673-7428