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VOL. 127 | NO. 29 | Monday, February 13, 2012

Elmwood Cemetery Launches Education Initiative

By Aisling Maki

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Historic Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis’ oldest active cemetery, has started its own “university” to educate Memphians about the lives of the individuals who helped shape a small river town into a modern metropolis.

A new volunteer training program called Elmwood University will teach students how to deliver history-based tours and preserve some of the oldest monuments at the historic cemetery, at 824 S. Dudley St.

The 160-year-old cemetery’s 75,000 permanent residents include governors, blues singers, suffragists, martyrs, generals, outlaws and veterans of almost every American war. Graves represent a variety of ethnic groups, including Gypsies, Chinese, Greeks and Italians.

The diversity of those interred means there’s a lot to learn about Elmwood, which is still an operational cemetery, with 15,000 plots still available.

“In the past, our volunteer training was too disorganized for our taste,” said longtime Elmwood executive director Kimberly McCollum. “We felt like if it was more organized, our volunteers would enjoy training more. So we put our heads together and came up with a curriculum.”

Elmwood University is broken down into two colleges, Stone College and Ambassador College, which will both meet at 9 a.m. on March 3.

Each program will take roughly three hours to complete, and although actual academic credit is not offered, the workshops will culminate in the presentation of Elmwood University diplomas, not to mention skills that can be applied at numerous historic sites.

Elmwood Cemetery is well known for its large collection of Victorian funerary art, and students enrolled in Stone College will be trained to assist in the preservation of Elmwood’s oldest and most fragile monuments.

Stone College will focus on cleaning, leveling and restoring monuments. Graduates of the three-hour workshop will be invited to participate in scheduled monument cleanings and restoration events throughout the year.

Stone College will be taught by Elmwood employees Todd Fox and Jorja Frazier, alongside longtime volunteer Kathy Johnson.

Education is a significant part of Elmwood’s mission. In addition to thousands of local residents and tourists, more than 5,000 area students tour the cemetery each year.

For volunteers who enjoy interacting with the public, Elmwood University’s Ambassador College will train them to lead historic tours, wear period costumes, and deliver a script that will keep a crowd captivated.

“People can tune out after awhile,” McCollum said. “You’re going to learn how to give a tour – not just the facts, but the pitfalls of giving tours, the joys of giving tours, how to time your tours, and all about how to do it – and not just what to say.”

Elmwood volunteer coordinator Cookie Swain and master gardener Jim Dennis will serve as Ambassador College deans, alongside volunteer historians Tommy Wilson and Jimmy Ogle.

Graduates of Ambassador College will be invited to participate in a variety of tours and special events at Elmwood.

All spaces have been filled for the pilot program. McCollum said students include a wide range of history buffs – business professionals, senior citizens, stay-at-home moms, college students and even one high school student.

“Both colleges filled up quickly,” McCollum said. “We put it in the newsletter and started getting e-mails overnight. We didn’t expect to have such a response. And the people participating are a broad sampling of the population, just like Elmwood.”

But McCollum said they plan to hold more workshops later this year.

“This is our pilot program and after this class we will re-evaluate and set another date,” McCollum said. “I’ve already got a waiting list.”

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