You never know when a golf ball or some loose change might appear by Jesse Swackhamer’s grave, denoting his love for sports and card-playing.
These quirky displays contrast with the rest of St. Mary Our Mother Cemetery, which reveals another side of Mr. Swackhamer. The grounds’ pristine condition reflects his dedication through many years as the Horseheads cemetery’s caretaker.
“It was his pride and joy. He was very meticulous about the way he made it look,” said Mr. Swackhamer’s son, Jim.
Mr. Swackhamer was still serving in the part-time position this past summer while also enjoying the retired life; he had remained in good health long after his 1979 retirement as the Village of Horseheads’ chief of police.
His life ended abruptly on Aug. 16, 2004, at age 76. Two hours after a two-car accident at the corner of Smith and Ridge roads in the town of Veteran, Mr. Swackhamer died from his injuries at Arnot Ogden Hospital. Mr. Swackhamer was the only fatality whereas his wife Anna, the lone passenger in his car, suffered severe head injuries and was hospital-bound for more than two months.
The death left a big void in a community where Mr. Swackhamer had been a fixture since his time on Horseheads’ police force, which spanned 25 years including the last 13 as chief. Mr. Swackhamer, who was born in Pennsylvania and served in the United States Army, had moved to the Southern Tier upon marrying the former Anna VanDusen, a Horseheads native, in 1952.
“There weren’t many people who didn’t know him. As a kid I was always hoping that as an adult, I would know as many people as he knew,” said Jim Swackhamer, 51. “He was always stopping, carrying on a conversation with people.”
In retirement Mr. Swackhamer enjoyed joining his buddies for morning coffee. He also was avidly involved in golf, card-playing, serving on boards and committees, and attending his family’s school and sporting events.
And much of his time was taken up working at the parish-owned cemetery located near St. Mary Our Mother’s church and school. According to Jim Swackhamer, the job was a good fit because his father loved gardening and his wife has family members buried at the cemetery.
The work is more challenging than it may appear, Jim Swackhamer noted. In addition to using a riding mower, a push mower is required to get in between the headstones. Add in such duties as applying weed killer, clearing pine cones from the cemetery’s many trees, and picking up garbage, and the hours start piling up.
“By the time he got done, it was time to start over again,” remarked Jim, who knows a thing or two himself about facility upkeep: He is the full-time buildings-and-grounds director for St. Mary Our Mother Parish, where he is a parishioner.
Mr. Swackhamer also maintained some of the parish property near the rectory. Though not even Catholic — Mr. Swackhamer and his wife belonged to St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Horseheads — his ties with St. Mary Our Mother were so strong that a funeral Mass was held for him at the church on Aug. 21.
Now Mr. Swackhamer is forever linked with the cemetery. Although his son said family members are buried elsewhere, the decision to have Mr. Swackhamer’s interment — which occurred in late October — at St. Mary Our Mother was simple. “To have him buried anyplace else didn’t make sense. That was one of the easy tasks, knowing where he would be buried,” Jim Swackhamer said.
Another tie between the Swackhamers and upkeep of St. Mary Our Mother has surfaced following the accident. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps as cemetery caretaker is Jim’s nephew, Tim Swackhamer, 28, who began the position in late August.
“I figured that would be the right thing to do. I needed a job and I thought my grandfather would want that, too,” said Tim, who continues to seek full-time maintenance work. “And, I like being outdoors.”
Tim admitted that on some days, it’s tough to be working at the cemetery among the constant reminders of his grandfather. “We had a close relationship,” Tim said, noting that he and Mr. Swackhamer often gardened and hunted together. Tim added that his 8-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, was close with her great-grandfather, who enjoyed taking her on amusement-park outings. In fact, on the day of the accident, Tim had been telling Mr. Swackhamer via telephone about a recent trip he and Gabrielle had taken to Sea Breeze Amusement Park in Rochester.
But Tim makes the best of the situation, visiting his grandfather’s grave regularly to start his work day. “I have a cup of coffee with him every morning I’m there,” he said. Plus, he has attempted to lighten the mood by putting a golf ball that he had found in the cemetery next to Mr. Swackhamer’s grave. As for the three quarters that appeared near the golf ball, that’s still a mystery.
As he goes about his work, Tim said there are times he can almost hear a voice guiding him, such as when he discovered a beehive just soon enough to avoid getting badly stung.
“He’s up there watching,” Tim said of his grandfather. “He’s keeping an eye on me.”