THERESA With a spring tan earned by days of hard work under an unseasonably hot sun, Richard L. Perrigo paused in his labors one morning earlier this month to explain why he has poured his soul and a good deal of sweat into a cemetery project.
He held his tattered baseball cap in one hand and a cigarette in the other. A few yards away at Kelsey Bridge Cemetery on County Route 46, across from his home, sat his John Deere lawn tractor with a bucket attachment. Scattered power tools dotted the grounds like exhausted defenders.
Ill tell you a story, he said. Its sad. You better brace yourself for this one.
It soon became apparent that his warning was largely meant for himself, as Mr. Perrigo struggled to hold back tears.
Valerie M. Irvine was more than a hired hand for Mr. Perrigo and his wife, Dorothy A.
She was like a daughter to us, he said. We bonded to her.
She had systemic lupus. Her immune system was attacking her own tissues and organs.
Last fall, Miss Irvine and Mr. Perrigo were clearing brush on property he owns across the road from his home in front of the cemetery and along the shore of the Indian River. She took a break on one of the freshly cut stumps.
She wasnt gazing at the peaceful, slow-moving river, suddenly revealed by the brush-clearing project. Instead, Miss Irvine motioned in back of her, to the sickly looking cemetery.
She said, We ought to fix that! Mr. Perrigo recalled.
The cemetery was a mess of broken and toppled headstones. Many were unreadable, covered with moss and lichen. But town workers mowed it, dodging the obstacles as best they could and, when time allowed, cutting back brush.
I said, Boy thats a lot of work. Lets fix this first, Mr. Perrigo said, referring to their brush-clearing project.
A few days later, Mr. Perrigo said Miss Irvine told him: You know, Dick, I dont want to die.
I said, Ill take your place, Mr. Perrigo said. I told her, Im all done. Ive done all I wanted to do in life. If you want me to fix this cemetery, Im going to fix it for you.
Mr. Perrigo, 65, is a veteran of the Vietnam War, serving as an infantryman in the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. Hes a retired carpenter/millright with Local 278.
Miss Irvine, 41, died at her Theresa home on Easter Sunday, March 31. The death was a sudden blow to the Perrigos. The night before she died, Mr. Perrigo had given her a ride to her apartment in the village of Theresa. Her obituary in the Watertown Daily Times noted she died unexpectedly. Survivors include two teenage sons, Dustin and Cody Draper of Theresa.
I took her home and told her to have a good Easter, Mr. Perrigo said.
Miss Irvines mother, Linda Tuttle of the town of Oswegatchie, said that Good Friday was a rough day for Valerie.
She never wanted me to go to the doctor with her, Ms. Tuttle said. But on Good Friday, she wanted me to go with her. She was in a lot of pain. That poor girl could hardly walk into the office.
But she returned to work at the Periggos the following day.
She liked to work hard, Miss Tuttle said. That was her way of keeping her mind off it. She worked with Dicky outdoors and helped Dorothy in the house.
She said her daughter met the couple four years ago when Valerie helped a friend of hers put in a new floor for the Perrigos. She said they also helped her through some personal troubles.
They were a godsend guardian angels, Ms. Tuttle said.
Days after her death and after checking with the town to see if it was OK, Mr. Perrigo went to work on the cemetery. He was assisted occasionally by extended family members. They formed work parties.
I put my mind to it, Mr. Perrigo said. She wanted me to fix this. And Im going to do it for her.
Hes also doing it for others.
There are veterans in here, he said. I dont care if they go back 200 years and they were riding horses. Theyre still veterans!
Mr. Perrigo said his wife received miniature American flags from the American Legion in Philadelphia that were placed on the graves of the veterans a few days ago.
The headstones of many of the veterans have American flags engraved on them. One of the graves is that of James B. Lingham, who died in 1895 at the age of 76. His marker notes he served in Co. F., 116th Regiment.
Theresa town historian Mary Wilcox said the Kelsey Bridge Cemetery apparently began as a family burial ground and was named for the pioneering Kelsey/Evans families of the area. Mary Ann Kelsey, born in 1814 in Edmeston, Otsego County, married into the Evans family. Mary Ann, who is buried at the cemetery, died in 1874.
Much of Mr. Perrigos work involves putting stainless steel pins in broken headstones and gluing them back together. Many of the headstones need new foundations. The heaviest one is in the front row of the cemetery.
It took seven men to pick that up and put it back up, he said.
Mr. Perrigo also repaired the cemetery flagpoles foundation, and Mrs. Perrigo painted the flagpole.
Theresa Town Highway Superintendent Gerald E. Reynolds said town workers mow and cut brush at about six cemeteries in the town and village.
I told him I would do everything I could to help him, Mr. Reynolds said. Whatever he needed, we tried to supply the stuff. He bought quite a lot of stuff on his own.
The town, Mr. Perrigo said, recently budgeted $150 for a sign at the cemetery after he requested one at a town meeting.
Mr. Reynolds said Mr. Perrigo burned up his pressure washer in cleaning the grave markers. So I let him take mine.
Hes done amazing work up there, Mr. Reynolds said. If youd seen before and after pictures, itd be hard to believe itd be the same cemetery.
Theres a hole near one tombstone, dug by an animal but now apparently the home of another creature.
Theres a cat living in there, Mr. Perrigo said. Its beautiful looking, black and orange. I was sitting over there the other night, about eight oclock. I got up and she was just coming out of the hole, looked at me and went back down the hole. Im not going to do anything. She might have young down there.
Mr. Perrigo often reveals a kind heart, which he said sometimes gets on the nerves of his neighbors, who would prefer that he dispatch neighborhood vermin.
We dont shoot anything here. Im against it, he said. I believe in nature. I like to see it and camcord it. I dont like gunfire. Ive seen enough of that.
Miss Irvine shared his attitude of kindness toward animals. She especially loved her Labrador, Sugar, a canine canoeing companion.
Such memories inspire Mr. Perrigo to continue his labor of love at the cemetery. He welcomes others to help him care for it and is especially concerned about future upkeep.
I work at it a little bit at a time, he said. If I get tired or sick, I go in the house, relax and then come back. My wife helps me out.
But the cemetery, he said, will continue to need tender loving care for years.
Weve got to keep these stones up, because theyll go right back (to disrepair) if we dont, he said.
Mr. Perrigo, after describing a retaining wall he and family members planned to build and spruce trees he plans to plant at the cemetery, said hes about three-quarters done with the overall project.
Im a loner, he said. Its hard for me to work around people. But it was good with Val. She was a good worker, like a daughter. We loved her.
Valeries body was cremated. Her remains rest in her mothers home in Oswegatchie.
Shes with me, Ms. Tuttle said of her only child. She was a good girl.