'RIP' may not apply to old tombstones

'RIP' may not apply to old tombstones

By Colleen Cason, ccason@VenturaCountyStar.com
May 18, 2005

At high noon on a recent Saturday, Pat Clark Doerner was hoping for something of a showdown -- or at least for something to show up.

The 69-year-old Ojai woman was braving poison oak, sun stroke, snake bbite and quadriplegia to right what she feels is a 40-year-old insult.

Clark Doerner was hoping to find tombstones at a Ventura water utility yard.

Normally, people go to graveyards for this. But little is normal about this strange chapter of Ventura history.

In late 1964, city workers converted the rundown St. Mary's and City cemeteries into a public park. There are some who feel the dead did not get their propers in the process.

The 600 or so headstones were removed and hauled to a city property in Hall Canyon. The departed still lay beneath the lawn where kids frolick and dogs do what dogs tend to do.

About then, letters went out to descendants telling them to claim the markers. Clark Doerner, who had several relatives buried in the graveyard, swears she received no notification.

Ventura officials justified what they would do to the 500 unclaimed stones by saying relatives did not respond because they supported the city's action.

Which brings us to tonight. The Ventura Parks and Recreation Commission plans to meet to hear a last round of public comment on the future of Cemetery Park. Proposals have ranged from creating a fenced dog park, adding a tot lot, using the site as refuge for an old Saticoy church or restoring it as a cemetery by returning as many tombstones as can be gathered.

One problem. There are different stories on where the markers rest today.

The city's line is they were held for seven years at the Hall Canyon site then lifted individually by a winch into a truck for transport to Olivas Park. There, they were laid to rest at the bottom the Olivas Park levee. So retrieving them is mission impossible.

Or is it? A man who has never to my knowledge spoken publicly on the cemetery issue contacted me a few months back. He asked that his name not be used because he does business with the city. He just thought I ought to know.

Back in the 1970s, he worked for the city and witnessed what happened to the headstones. He said none ever made it into Olivas levee. They were used to create a berm for the road that runs beside the barranca in Hall Canyon. Some were broken up badly by rough handling, he told me.

This explains, he said, why markers have been found on beaches after storms floated them via the barranca to the sea.

He figured some might just be inches from the surface while others are resting deeper in the canyon wall.

When I told Clark Doerner this story, she went into search mode.

Especially after her cousin Larry Rose told her what he had seen in Hall Canyon.

As a student in a Ventura College sculpture class in the early 1970s, he heard marble and granite were laying around -- abandoned and for the taking -- up there.

When he went to investigate, he found headstones in a jumble alongg the road.

Small chunks, huge monuments, you name it. The engraving was legible on many. Some had been pushed over the side into the barranca.

In her mind's eye, Clark Doerner had hoped we would find the stones piled in plain view. No such luck.

As we leaned over the edge of the 40-foot-deep arroyo on Saturday, she shouted to me. "Look there."

It appeared to be a piece of concrete that had been worked by human hand or power tool. But it would take Sir Edmund Hillary to rappel down and explore it.

Clark Doerner left dismayed and angry. She believes the city should undertake a dig in Hall Canyon to determine whether any of the stones remain.

Jerry Revard of the parks division assures me no markers are on the site unless deposited by vandals. Besides, he is certain the stones were too valued by the city officials to be used as mere riprap, he said.

I hadn't used that word, but it was in my mind. Riprap is broken surplus stone used for fill in road work.

Clark Doerner shudders at the thought her family's heritage might now be riprap when it should be RIP -- as in resting in peace.

Update on another stone

The Hersey family of Camarillo now has back iin its possession a stone bearing the handprints of their daughter Allison, who died in November at age 9. I wrote a recent column about how it had disappeared from the front walk of the family's Camarillo home. On Mother's Day, the Herseys discovered disturbed ground in their front yard and found the stone -- chipped and much the worse for wear -- buried there.

-- Contact Colleen Cason at ccason@VenturaCountyStar.com or at 655-5830.

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