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Theresa man’s cemetery project a memorial to friend and hired hand


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.

“I’ll tell you a story,” he said. “It’s 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 wasn’t 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 — that’s a lot of work. Let’s 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 don’t want to die.’”

“I said, ‘I’ll take your place,’” Mr. Perrigo said. “I told her, ‘I’m all done. I’ve done all I wanted to do in life. If you want me to fix this cemetery, I’m 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. He’s 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 Irvine’s 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 I’m going to do it for her.”

He’s also doing it for others.

“There are veterans in here,” he said. “I don’t care if they go back 200 years and they were riding horses. They’re 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. Perrigo’s 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 flagpole’s 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.”

“He’s done amazing work up there,” Mr. Reynolds said. “If you’d seen before and after pictures, it’d be hard to believe it’d be the same cemetery.”

There’s a hole near one tombstone, dug by an animal but now apparently the home of another creature.

“There’s a cat living in there,” Mr. Perrigo said. “It’s beautiful looking, black and orange. I was sitting over there the other night, about eight o’clock. I got up and she was just coming out of the hole, looked at me and went back down the hole. I’m 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 don’t shoot anything here. I’m against it,” he said. “I believe in nature. I like to see it and camcord it. I don’t like gunfire. I’ve 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.

“We’ve got to keep these stones up, because they’ll go right back (to disrepair) if we don’t,” 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 he’s about three-quarters done with the overall project.

“I’m a loner,” he said. “It’s hard for me to work around people. But it was good with Val. She was a good worker, like a daughter. We loved her.”

Valerie’s body was cremated. Her remains rest in her mother’s home in Oswegatchie.

“She’s with me,” Ms. Tuttle said of her only child. “She was a good girl.”

Patriot’s descendant heartened by cemetery work
THERESA — American patriot Urial Evans came to Theresa late in life. He’s one of the more prominent people who found a final resting spot at Kelsey Bridge Cemetery.
He was the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Roberta D. Calhoun-Eagan of Canandaigua. Urial (also spelled Uriel in some documents) died in August 1825 at the age of 73.
“My elderly cousin, who is about to be 92, got down on his knees a few years ago and transcribed the little writing in italic at the bottom of Urial’s tombstone,” Mrs. Calhoun-Eagan said.
The inscription, which can now be read more easily due to the work at the cemetery by Richard L. Perrigo, reads:
“Urial Evans was appointed justice of the peace by quorum for the county of Chisheer and by the governor of New Hampshire in the year of 1811.”
But that’s only part of his story, Mrs. Calhoun-Eagan said.
According to “Birth of the Federal Constitution: A History of the New Hampshire Convention” by Joseph B. Walker, in 1788 Mr. Evans at the age of 34 “served as Hinsdale, New Hampshire’s delegate to the New Hampshire convention for the investigation, discussion and decision of the Federal Constitution.”
He also served in the Revolutionary War, fighting at the Battle of Ticonderoga, and was a chairman of the House of Representatives in New Hampshire.
His wife, Lucinda, died in 1815 in New Hampshire. She was his first cousin.
Following her death, Mr. Evans moved to Theresa — probably to be near family members who had moved there, Mrs. Calhoun-Eagan surmises.
One of Urial’s brothers, Ethni, was the founder of Evans Mills. He’s buried at Evans Mills Cemetery. Another brother, Eldad, is buried at Kelsey Bridge Cemetery.
Mrs. Calhoun-Eagan is the daughter of Anson John Calhoun, who was related to Chauncey Calhoun, one of the early settlers of Watertown. She said her father left Watertown in the early 1950s.
Mrs. Calhoun-Eagan said she enjoys stopping by the old graveyard when she comes to the north country to visit relatives. She first visited the cemetery in 1999. She believes she may have other ancestors there besides Urial Evans.
“I have been back many times to take pictures and to see what else I may have missed,” she said.
She was heartened to hear about Mr. Perrigo’s revitalization efforts.
“You are remembering your connections,” she said. “This is your family. You are here because they are here. So honoring them by taking care of their resting place means very much.”
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