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Joe's Neighborhood

Two characters and a dog in Woodland Cemetery

5/1/2024

The graves sprawl over the bright green and faded brown grass like grazing cattle over the stubble of an Iowa corn field. Narrow blacktop roads meander here and there across the 65 acres. Pools of sunshine dance on the white granite tombstones and the half-buried markers of grey river rock. While the many trees with small leafing buds stand quietly in respect. 

Woodland Cemetery on the cusp of spring.

Mike Rowley tells a story. 

More than 100 years ago, there was an undertaker preparing a body, and this dog appeared and always seemed to be underfoot. So the days go by, and they have the funeral at the cemetery. Again, they see the dog off to the side. The burial takes place. The caretaker at Woodland Cemetery notices this dog still hanging around this guy’s grave. So, they try to give the dog food and water. 

Mike Rowley is a big man. Broad shoulders. Wide smile. Well spoken. Unsurprisingly, a retired pharmaceutical salesman; surprisingly, a collector of stories, a curious historian, and the savior of many a grave in Woodland Cemetery.

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“My dad died when I was about 8. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I was the youngest in my family. I always had a natural interest in history. Never made any money off it, though.”

Mike speaks with a subdued intensity that is hidden behind a smile and a quick laugh. Don’t be fooled, folks, he has a plan. And since he is bigger than his skin, he tries not to overwhelm his listener with his enthusiasm for whatever plan that is. 

“We were in cemeteries all the time as the old relatives died off. I always thought cemeteries were fascinating, and I wondered what that guy did or what did she do. Why interest in the small stories? It’s not the headlines that make people tick; it is the little untold things.”

Mike smiles.

“Maybe I like the small stories because I have a short attention span?”

Hah! Or maybe it’s from touching your own tombstone? 

Mike was awarded the 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award from Des Moines Parks and Recreation — “Mike Rowley, whose relationship with Des Moines cemeteries began more than six decades ago, has worked tirelessly to honor and remember those laid to rest within them. Rowley has spent countless hours researching stories, planning cemetery projects, and curating our city’s history.” 

Days go by, and the dog will not leave. It’s really getting famished. Finally, the caretakers wife gets the dog to come home with them. The dog’s name is Queen. 

Mary Christopher, a Realtor in the Des Moines area with VIA (a group of “mature Realtors who help each other rather than compete,” according to Mary), just wrote a book with Mike — “Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines: A History.”

”I decided to do this book on Woodland Cemetery because there really wasn’t a book of all the stories. I approached Mike by accident — he was leaning over a grave — and we were introduced.”

How appropriate. 

Mary smiles easily and speaks of cemeteries with the bright eyes of a young kid showing you their favorite toy. 

“I love cemeteries. I can’t travel without stopping at every cemetery. I don’t know why I love it. It’s a little creepy, but I love it.”

But Mary’s no dreaming kid, she is a “get it done” person. Without a doubt, she’s who you want organizing your life. Mary roped in Mike as her coauthor and then put together a team of eight or nine people to flesh out their research. And several years later, voila — a book of stories about Woodland Cemetery. 

“Has this book made me think of my own death?” Mary pauses, “My sister told me that even though I’m to be cremated, I should really have a stone at Woodland… I thought about it, and that’s what I did.”

Mary smiles, looking off into space.

“This book has made me appreciate people more. Here’s all these people gone, some not forgotten who were famous, but many of them forgotten for over 150 years. To think that someone will remember me for 150 years, that’s cool. At least people might remember a couple of books I’ve written.” Mary laughs at herself. 

A legacy then?

“I feel like life is really short. But, as someone said, as long as someone keeps saying your name, you’re still alive.” 

Two or three years later, the caretaker’s wife is sitting at home and the dog is agitated trying to get her attention. Finally, the dog is making such a fuss that she follows the dog out of her bedroom. Minutes later, the ceiling crashes down. The house had been on fire. Both of them made it out alive.

“I thought I’d never live to be 66,” says Mike. “I don’t think death is good or bad. However, as one of the stones has inscribed on it, ‘Words suggest, actions show.’ And the action doesn’t have to be grandiose. We started putting in stones for veterans whose graves hadn’t been marked, and we set a goal for five. Now we’ve done over 300. I tell people not to be intimidated by the numbers — just do one.”

So if you go to Woodland Cemetery, and if you’re walking along the street, there is a little step and it says McBride on it. The step is the gravesite of the caretaker of long ago who took Queen home. We thought, as the step was so small, it was too small for you or me to step on, but perfect for Queen to rest upon. We like that thought. 

So there you have it. Two characters and a dog leaving their mark on Woodland Cemetery. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:  www.joesneighborhood.com.

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