Kim McCollum is at home in the company of Confederate generals, musicians, politicians, murderers and civil rights leaders.
As executive director of the 161-year-old Elmwood Cemetery, McCollum is in charge of the 80 acres that serves as the final resting place to many of the city’s famous, infamous and notorious, as well as thousands of yellow fever victims known and unknown.
Despite such a portentous workplace, McCollum believes she is “working at the most beautiful place in Memphis.”
Indeed, the cemetery is home to almost 1,500 mature trees that bloom throughout the year and, she says, “I’m surrounded by angels in the cemetery, and the statues. How could you not want to come to work here? This place is breathtaking.”
Raised in Southaven, where she still lives with her two children, McCollum attended Southaven High School and then the University of Memphis for a degree in English. Not quite sure how her degree would translate into a career, she hoped to work in the nonprofit sector as a grant writer or in marketing.
“I felt like I just wanted to do some good on some level, or try to,” she said.
Not only does she now run the sort of organization she’d hoped to work for, but her job has her in charge of one of the oldest nonprofits in Tennessee.
While a college student, she went to work for the Memphis Botanic Garden and as an intern for the Pink Palace. Just before graduation it was suggested by a friend that she apply for the position of receptionist at the cemetery and she went to work for the former director, Frances Catmur.
She says of her first day on the job: “I don’t think I was prepared.” It was Veteran’s Day and Catmur handed McCollum a camera and declared her photographer for the day’s remembrance events.
“There was a man speaking at the event who had fought at the Battle of the Bulge and we had just lost my grandfather a couple of months before that and he was in World War II,” McCollum said. “My first day of work was a difficult day of work, I wasn’t really prepared for the emotional charge of the day.”
She wasn’t sure she was up to the job after that first day, but she persevered, and within the year Catmur retired and McCollum was promoted to director in 2005.
“I started asking for stuff to do,” McCollum said. “I was fine answering the telephone, but I knew that I loved Elmwood, I knew that I loved the historical aspect, I loved that I was given the opportunity to learn about Memphis and regional history in a way that had never been presented to me before.”
“It’s so cool to take people who’ve never been here before out into the cemetery and tell the stories of individuals who are buried here, because it tells the story of Memphis.”
It is a job that is still filled with the emotion of that first day, but McCollum says she “feels like I blinked” in the time between being named director and today.
There are days filled with sales (though Elmwood has more than 75,000 inhabitants, there is still room for more) as well as managing a staff that consists of an assistant director, historian, superintendent and full-time grounds crew.
“A day can start with a committee meeting with my trustees and end up giving a tour at the end of the day,” she said, continuing on about this, her favorite aspect of the job, “It’s so cool to take people who’ve never been here before out into the cemetery and tell the stories of individuals who are buried here, because it tells the story of Memphis.”
She is also in charge of development and raising the funds that will help keep the cemetery running for another century and a half.
Last year, when the cemetery turned 160, McCollum began the Evergreen 160 program to offer families the opportunity to support Elmwood with a $160 donation. Those families received a gold plaque put on one of the oldest trees in memory of someone. This year those temporary plaques will be taken down and a permanent one will be put in the office within the Phillips Cottage.
Though the responsibility as caretaker of such an integral part of the city’s history is immense, McCollum wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s work that is its own reward and that she’s reminded of daily when she looks from her office window or takes a stroll around the grounds.
“I feel really honored to have been allowed to be a part of Memphis history in this way,” she says, adding, “also, I’m going to be buried here and so I would like to keep the cemetery up.”