By Ben Joravsky
The multimillion-dollar corporation that owns Rosehill Cemetery had a good thing going with David Wendell.
Willing to work day and night for little pay, the 29-year-old archivist-historian made a name for Rosehill and himself by staging elaborate pageants and historical reenactments that drew thousands of onlookers to the north-side cemetery.
Yet last month he was fired with no warning and little explanation. “They told me I was never to step foot on the premises again,” says Wendell. “They told me if I did I’d be ‘removed.'”
Just why Rosehill would rudely dismiss such a valuable employee is a mystery that’s got local historians and history buffs raising a ruckus. They’re writing letters to Service Corporation International, the Houston-based company that owns Rosehill, pleading for Wendell to be hired back.
“This is an outrage because David was doing an excellent job,” says Mary Jo Doyle, executive director of the Rogers Park-West Ridge Historical Society. “It’s really kind of sad, because you can’t imagine how valuable David was for the appreciation of Chicago history, and particularly Rosehill’s history.”
Despite his knowledge of local history, Wendell’s not from Chicago. He was born and raised in Nebraska, and what he knows he’s learned on his own. “You can say I’ve had an interest in history since the history of me,” he says. “I was the kind of kid who absorbed so much history I used to correct my teachers when they made a mistake. By the time I finished high school I had amassed a private library of 2,000 volumes, largely nonfiction relating to American history. I never bothered with college because I found that self-education is cheaper and I felt that with my knowledge I could be successful without college.”
After high school he went to work as a tour guide at Pioneer Village, a large resort theme park in Nebraska. “I dressed up like a pioneer from the Victorian era and escorted tourists on guided excursions back into time.”
In 1993 he moved to Chicago and took a job as a guide on a double-decker tourist bus traveling around the Loop. “In preparation for that job I read up on the history of Chicago and all of its colorful figures,” he says. Soon after, he went to work at Rosehill; he wrote a history of the cemetery, created a Civil War museum filled with artifacts he either collected or persuaded others to lend, and began staging his pageants.
For his efforts, Rosehill paid him several hundred dollars a month and awarded him about $4,300 a year to put on shows. “When you considered all the hours I worked, I was barely making minimum wage,” says Wendell. “I was working 12-hour days and on weekends, but I didn’t care because I loved it. I loved the cemetery, I loved the history. I didn’t worry about the money. I cut my expenses, I sold my car. I take public transportation, I eat one meal a day. I’m not complaining. My life was my work.”
It seemed a perfect match. Rosehill, located between Western and Ravenswood avenues just south of Peterson, is one of the city’s largest and oldest nonsectarian cemeteries, the burial grounds of mayors, murderers, generals, abolitionists, union leaders, actors, and writers going back to the 19th century.
“With all the famous people buried here there’s no end to the types of pageants and re-creations you can stage,” says Wendell. “I was determined to come up with them all.”
Among the programs he organized were a Halloween hayride history tour (which brought in about 5,000 visitors), a “Victorian Picnic in the Park” (featuring employees in period costumes), a “Thank You Mother’s Day Tour” (in which bouquets were laid at the graves of famous mothers buried there), a “Victory Day” commemoration of the end of World War II, a “Spirit of ’76 Revolutionary War” reenactment, an Appomattox surrender reenactment, and a Flag Day celebration (featuring a live performance of the 1812 Overture). He organized talks by famous writers (John Updike, Shelby Foote) and programs featuring actors portraying famous presidents–though when Wendell tells the story it’s as though he provided the presidents themselves: “I brought in George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I brought in artifacts of the Titanic, the Hindenburg, a World War I aircraft. I had real cannons brought in for the 1812 Overture. I had camels here.”
“Yes, real live camels. That was back in 1995. We conducted a living Nativity scene for Christmas. I wanted it to be as original as possible, with Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus surrounded by animals indigenous to the Middle East. I got the camels from a ranch in Wisconsin. And we had sleigh rides and dreidel games and the lighting of the menorah, because as a nonsectarian cemetery Rosehill’s open to all religions.”
His most elaborate staging might have been last year’s reenactment of the Lincoln funeral procession. “We had regiments, and bands performing original dirges,” he says. “We had a hearse containing the casket of the president. The pallbearers included U.S. Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, the famous lawyer Elmer Gertz, Timothy Good, author of the book I Saw Lincoln Shot, and Thomas Mudd, great-grandson of Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg. We had a review of the infantry. Women dressed in black and in mourning. Musketry fire, a cannon salute, a professional actor portraying Lincoln. He lay in the casket for two hours straight. People asked, ‘Where did you find such a lifelike wax figure?’ I did it all by getting on the phone and calling people. I’ve put together an extensive network over the years so I now know who to call when I need to find, oh, a camel or actors who can play Lincoln, dead or alive.”
Local residents and historians remember that reenactment with wonderment. “There were so many people it was hard to find a place to stand,” says Barry Kafka, a member of the Bowmanville Community Organization, a local group. “You should have seen David–he walked around with his walkie-talkie, marshaling the forces. At the start he simply said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Lincoln funeral procession.’ It truly was amazing, because it was like seeing the real thing. I thought, how in the world does he get all of this done? I mean, he had dozens of people involved. The details must have been staggering.”
Almost everyone who knew his work was shocked when he was fired. “On May 30 at ten in the morning I was called into the sales manager’s office and informed that because I had not resulted in a significant increase in sales, the historical program, the Civil War museum, and myself were terminated,” says Wendell. “I had no warning. They’d gone through about 12 sales managers in the time I’ve been here, but I didn’t have any major disagreements with any of them. I always cleaned up after a show–even with the horses and camels there were never any droppings. Our shows were on Sundays, so they didn’t interrupt any funerals. They were in good taste. Really, I had no warning.”
He was given two hours “to clear out my desk. The sales manager hovered over me as I gathered my stuff. It wasn’t so much intimidating as insulting.”
A few days later Wendell returned with the great-great-grandson of John McArthur, a Civil War general buried in the cemetery. “We returned to get General McArthur’s presentation sword, which had been given to the general by the men who served beneath him,” says Wendell. “It was not the museum’s sword. It was on loan from the family. In fact many of the artifacts belonged to me, not the cemetery. They told me that artifacts and documents from the museum had been taken to an unidentified location where I was denied access. I was told I was not allowed on the cemetery property anymore, that I would have to leave or be removed.”
Rosehill officials have not issued an explanation of why Wendell was fired. The Civil War museum has been converted into an office, but an employee on duty at the cemetery says the museum will return, though he doesn’t know when, much less why it was closed in the first place. “I don’t know what happened to Wendell,” the employee says. “He doesn’t work here anymore.”
A spokesman at Service Corporation’s Houston headquarters says company policy prohibits him from commenting on personnel matters.
In the absence of an official explanation, many theories abound. Some observers wonder if cemetery officials envied the attention Wendell received; maybe he made them look like a bunch of loafers by enthusiastically working long hours for little pay. Or maybe they caught holy hell from someone in corporate accounting who wanted to know who authorized an archivist-historian.
Doyle, Kafka, and other historians and activists are gearing up a letter-writing campaign. Through Judge Marovitz, they might even convince Mayor Daley to press the matter with Rosehill officials. “The amazing thing is that even after all of this I want my job back because I loved doing it,” says Wendell. “I can’t believe so many people who love history will be disappointed, and that a Fortune 400 company would let so much goodwill be lost over $4,300.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Wendell photo by Robert Drea.