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Life in the graveyard

Saranac Lake High School student James Catania and Gary Baldwin stand at the gravestone of Dr. Edward and Mary Baldwin. (Photo provided by Amy Catania, Historic Saranac Lake)

Graveyards are for the living. It’s something I think about every autumn when Pine Ridge Cemetery comes alive with children on our annual fifth grade field trip. Ahead of time, the students research a person buried there. As we walk down to the graveyard from school, excitement builds. Upon arrival, the kids race around, looking excitedly for their person. It’s like a bizarre version of an Easter egg hunt.

With the help of friendly and unflappable volunteer Jim Clark, the kids eventually find their gravestones. We stop at the resting places of Charlie Green, Julia Miller, Don Duso and many others. We notice the memorials for veterans, firefighters and children. Jim Clark fills in with stories he remembers. The simple lesson of the day is that our lives matter.

We stop to see the memorial to the Norwegian sailors who came for the tuberculosis cure after World War II. Eyes open wide when we go inside the vault and see the cabinets where the bodies were stored. In the Jewish section of the cemetery, the kids notice the pebbles left on the headstones. We talk about the tradition of leaving a pebble to show that the person is remembered. The kids each pick up a small stone, and many choose to place one on the memorial to the Ring family who lost 25 family members in the Holocaust.

We climb up rolling hills terraced with old stone walls to visit the graves of Saranac Lake’s prominent doctors. Dr. Edward Baldwin is buried here with his wife Mary. Dr. Baldwin was a scientist of national prominence and a close friend and colleague of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau. He served as the director of the Saranac Laboratory, where we make our museum today. Last year, Dr. Baldwin’s granddaughter and her children brought a treasure trove of family photos for our collection. The family emailed this spring, asking if we know someone who could clean up the headstone and family plot.

Immediately the person who came to mind is a man of the same last name who has been carefully cleaning some of the old stones at the cemetery. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Gary Baldwin retired a few years ago from his career as a standout teacher at Petrova School. Elementary students who came on tours to the laboratory museum would always ask if Dr. Baldwin and Mr. Baldwin were related. They thought it perfectly likely that their Einstein-like teacher would have a close connection to our laboratory and its first director.

Pine Ridge Cemetery in Saranac Lake (Photo provided by Amy Catania, Historic Saranac Lake)

So it was only fitting to ask Mr. Baldwin to restore Dr. Baldwin’s stone. He said he would be happy to help and that he would go on over sometime soon as the weather warmed. Now all I needed was a young person to do the raking. Luckily a certain high schooler, James, needed to earn community service credit for school. So one early spring day, James and I went over to the cemetery. Coincidentally, there was Mr. Baldwin, who had just arrived to clean the stone.

James smiled to see his favorite elementary school teacher, and I left the two of them working together at a safe social distance, happy with each other’s company. As I walked out under the tall pines, I thought about how nice it is to live in a place where people know each other over time and across generations. I thought about how graveyards are for the living. They remind us that what matters is our time on this earth, right now. Plus, sometimes you’ll find someone there you know — living or not — and it’s nice to stop and visit.

Amy Catania is executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.

P.S. Gravestones can be damaged if not cleaned properly. Find out about how to clean them at www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/48-preserving-grave-markers.htm.

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