People gather to clean cemetery

Chris Oravecz, 53, grew up in Ohio, but during the summers he would visit his grandmother, Dana Servello, at her Ninth Avenue home. He and his friends would play in places like the yard of a shuttered railroad shop or the Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Just a year ago, when Oravecz returned to Altoona for a visit, he noticed the 22-acre burial ground was looking very bad.

The weeds were high, and there was junk and trash everywhere.

“I almost cried. I felt so bad. I couldn’t go home without doing something about this,” he said.

Oravecz said he is the type of guy who picks up and disposes of gum wrappers lying in parking lots, so instinctively he began a one-man cleanup effort, disposing of “bottles, cans, newspapers and syringes, all kind of stuff.”

He thought, “Somebody needs to become aware of this.”

Fast forward to just three weeks ago when Wendy Lynch of Altoona, whose grandparents lived near Oak Ridge, drove up 10th Street toward First Avenue and noticed the knee-to-waist-high grass covering thousands of grave markers.

In this day of social media, a website or a Facebook page draws attention, and Lynch and Henry Benton, who created the Facebook group called “Volunteers unite to clean up Altoona PA cemeteries,” decided to call for a cleanup day at Oak Ridge on Saturday.

The fledgling group expected a good turnout, but their expectations were far short of what occurred on this beautiful, crisp Saturday morning in the Pennsylvania hills.

An estimated 125 to 150 people brought rakes, weed whackers, push mowers and snarky riding mowers.

They picked up branches and brush, mowed and raked. Workers ranged from 80 years of age to mere children.

Faces were red from the heat, and clothes were covered with bits of grass and leaves. The effort was slow but very persistent.

Some delivered water and some brought pizza and chips fuel for the human fire.

Dawn Sweeney and her mower are used to hard work, and Saturday’s work was just that. Her mower kept stalling in the dense and matted grass. Still, Sweeney pushed on with a smile.

Kevin McClain and his wife, Maria, of Bowie, Md., came to Altoona to work. Kevin is an Altoona native, and he remembers helping his grandfather, Hiram Heist, who cared for a Hollidaysburg cemetery when he was a child.

McClain was a very young helper to his grandfather in those days, and he quipped, “I’ve got cemeteries in my blood.”

The McClains came north after Kevin spotted a post on the Internet about the clean-up.

He cut the weeds while his wife raked, and what she found caused her to hesitate. Uncovered in the dirt was the crushed metal grave marker of a 2-year-old child. Maria McClain pulled it from the ground and tried to prop it up, putting it back in place next to the grave markers of two other children, one who had died at birth, the other who died at age 1.

The children died in the 1880s, and their markers listed the same parents from a family named Pietsch. It was a touching moment, a moment of quiet and reflection.

And then there was Dave Prosser of Altoona, who came from the other side of the city with hopes of locating the grave of a relative.

He had been unsuccessful in his effort, but he too kept working, stating, “It’s not hard work when it’s important.”

UPMC Altoona police officer Greg Servello said he had been using his weed trimmer all Saturday morning. He was on the lower side of the cemetery, which runs from First Avenue down to Pleasant Valley Boulevard. He said the cemetery needs some TLC, and he said the volunteer effort Saturday was “absolutely wonderful.”

The work was sometimes tough, but he added, “It’s very, very fulfilling.”

Then there was John Orr of Altoona, who had earlier this year planted flowers at the graves of a deceased brother, his grandparents and a great aunt. He said he’d never seen the upkeep at Oak Ridge so bad.

Through all the noise of the weed whackers and mowers, just about everyone talked about the guy who came from Ohio.

Oravecz had found out about cleanup day and had packed up his riding mower and drove 270 miles to Altoona to participate.

He took time off to talk about his love of Altoona and the Oak Ridge Cemetery, but then he said he had to get back to work. He intended to go all day if he could.

He said he is a survivor of a quadruple heart bypass and such a serious operation “made me much more aware of things around me.”

He began to notice what other people did, how his wife, Carla Carlone-Oravecz, stopped her car one day to help a man who had fallen along the road and couldn’t get up.

He appreciated the effort organized by Lynch and Benton.

Michelle Auker is the person who estimated the turnout at between 125 to 150 participants, and she said, “I think this is a wonderful show of community spirit. It’s amazing to see people working so hard. The generosity is just overwhelming.”

The moment she remembered was when relatives of someone buried in the cemetery came to see what was happening and then saying to the workers nearby, “Thank you.”

Lynch too was thankful for what she said was the overwhelming support from businesses and people, but then she emphasized the cleanup at Oak Ridge may be only a first step.

She didn’t elaborate, but she concluded, “I don’t want to see anything go backward.”