Longtime Waterford gravedigger likes to look on the bright side
Waterford - In the quiet of Jordan Cemetery, longtime gravedigger Bob Prentice putters around on a riding lawnmower or sits in the one-room office taking funeral calls.
Prentice has been burying people for nearly 50 years and said he will be lowering bodies into the ground until he dies.
"If I dig the hole ahead of time, I can lay down," said Prentice, 64, who is the cemetery's superintendent. "That is about it. You work here until you die."
There are soldiers buried at Jordan Cemetery from the Civil War to the Afghanistan War. There are first selectmen, firefighters and police officers.
There are those whose headstones reveal tragedy, such as Elaine F. Cluny and David J. Cluny, whose headstone reads "murdered," in 1993, and those, such as Alvin Edward Getty, who was blind but whose inscriptions reflect a sense of hope for the afterlife: "Was blind but now I see."
Prentice has helped bury about 3,300 people, including his own friends, fellow veterans and local celebrities, but working with the dead each day hasn't gotten Prentice down. His nickname is "Giggles," and he's the kind of person who would give the shirt off his back, friends say.
Born on Sept. 29, 1949, in New London, Prentice grew up in Waterford. He started working at the cemetery with his two brothers after dropping out of ninth grade. One of his jobs was to carry plywood along the side of the road while the road was getting oiled, he said, so that the oil wouldn't splatter onto the headstones.
He made 35 cents an hour. As a kid, he said, he was happy to make that much. He worked at the 35-acre cemetery for three years until a couple of his buddies showed up and told him they were joining the Army.
"I'll go with you," he recalls saying. "We stopped and went down and signed up."
He served in the Army from 1968 until 1971 and worked as combat support in Thailand. He considers himself "very lucky" because he did not see any action.
When he returned to Waterford, it was tough to find a job, he said.
"I figured I would go for the Town of Waterford, but that didn't work out," Prentice said. "It wasn't popular to hire vets back then."
A family friend, Bob Maynard, offered him his old job back.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he said, it was tough making only $6 or $7 an hour at the cemetery. He and his wife and two children lived with his mother. Several years after he returned, he and his wife divorced. He took care of his mother until her death in 2003. Afterwards, he sold the house and moved into a trailer park near the cemetery.
Prentice makes $17 an hour these days and will start collecting Social Security when he turns 65 in September. He said he regrets not applying for jobs at Electric Boat or Pfizer. He said he could have worked at either company pushing a broom and already have retired from that job and possibly a second.
Prentice's daughter, Tina Mell, recalled going to the cemetery on Saturdays to help her father dig holes and watch him mow the lawn. Mell said her father is the reason she didn't quit school when she thought about dropping out.
"When I was 16, quote-end-quote, he says, 'Graduate high school. Don't be a dummy like me,'" Mell said, her voice cracking. "My dad is not a dummy. He is not. He is not dumb by any means. He is a smart, great guy."
From shovels to backhoes
For the first 25 years on the job, Prentice, along with his boss and summer help, hand-dug 80 to 100 graves a year with shovels. In the 1990s, the cemetery association provided him with a backhoe, after which Prentice said he put on some weight.
Lately, he digs only 20 graves a year with the backhoe. More people are choosing cremation these days, he said. Prentice himself wants to be cremated because he said it's less expensive.
John Hunter, treasurer and secretary of the cemetery's board, said there were about 120 burials a year back in the 1960s, and that there are 60 to 70 burials, plus about 30 cremations, a year these days.
The cemetery was started by the Chappell family in the 1800s. A family member, Frank Rose, built the fieldstone main entranceway in 1914, according to "An Illustrated History of Waterford, Connecticut" by Robert L. Bachman.
In 1932, the Jordan Mutual Cemetery Association bought the property.
Prentice has come to know some of the visitors to the cemetery. The wife of former race car driver Edward Smith visits every morning, and Donald McCarthy, a retired Waterford police officer, visits his son's grave every day as well, Prentice said.
"I try to be a little helpful," he said. "Most of the time, people need somebody to vent to, and hopefully they go away feeling a little bit better."
The memory of his friend, James T. Joyner, who died in a motorcycle accident and is buried in the cemetery, gave Prentice pause.
"Vietnam killed him, in a sense," Prentice said. "He didn't die over there, he died over here. He just couldn't get it together, and he was the nicest person in the world."
There are also some burials that drew large crowds, such as Ernest P. Wallace, who operated Waterford-based Shipman's Fire Equipment Co. for many years, Prentice said.
The horseshoe state champion, Catherine Hanson, is buried at Jordan Cemetery, and so is carnival performer Princess Nellie, who was only 30 inches tall and weighed 42 pounds at age 40.
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