Of the many ways people think about history, cemeteries rarely are at the top of their list.
I lost my best friend of the past two decades in January when Dirk Siedlecki suddenly passed on.
I am not alone. Dirk has countless friends who also grieve.
Some of us used to joke while volunteering with him at the Jacksonville Cemetery, wondering amongst ourselves how he was able to convince us to join him in his cemetery passion week after week. There we were, raking leaves, cleaning markers, and a few of us discovering the poison oak that lurked nearby; and yet, we loved it, and I suppose it’s because we loved him and what he believed in.
“This is our history,” he told me. “If we don’t take care of it, restore it, repair it, it’s going to be lost forever.”
He said some of his earliest memories were family trips to the local cemetery to clean family graves and put flags on veteran’s graves. “My parents taught us the importance of cemeteries to families and the community. They taught us to always be respectful of those who had passed on.”
Born near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1945, the second son of Casimier and Marie Walsh Siedlecki, Dirk was proud of his Irish heritage. One of his final trips around the world was to Ireland.
By the time Dirk was an adult, the family had been living near New York City for a while. There he began his career with Trans World Airlines, eventually retiring in San Francisco. It took him a while to convince Mary, a fellow employee, that he was worthy enough to be her husband. It was a long-lasting marriage.
After retirement, they moved to Southern Oregon and joined the Jacksonville Boosters Club, where Dirk connected his childhood cemetery memories with what he saw at Jacksonville’s Cemetery.
“We joined a cemetery cleanup day in 2001,” he told me. “Hardly anyone showed up, and the cemetery was a mess. It looked terrible.”
He said a group of friends were chatting over some coffee and talking about how peaceful it was up on Cemetery Hill and how it was a shame that it looked that way. “The more we talked,” he said, “the more we knew something had to be done, so we did it.”
A cemetery committee was formed within the Boosters Club, and Dirk spearheaded another cemetery cleanup that received unbelievable support. “Volunteers were ready to do anything that needed to be done,” he said.
In 2008, members of the Cemetery Committee formed the Friends of Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery, a tax-free, nonprofit organization of volunteers. Dirk was its president until he died.
The list of the Friends accomplishments is long and impressive, all dedicated to cemetery education, preservation and restoration efforts. It takes a small army of volunteers, but it’s an army that cares, follows its leader and doesn’t complain. “The payoff for all our work,” Dirk would say, “is satisfaction.”
For nearly two decades, three or four days of every week, Dirk arrived in the cemetery with just one mission in mind — saving Southern Oregon history. He had every reason to brag about his accomplishments, but he didn’t.
He took his cemetery passion to Salem, serving for eight years on the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries, two of those years as chair. He helped local and statewide cemeteries organize their own volunteer programs. He gave multiple workshops in the cemetery each year on how to clean and repair damaged headstones, and whenever there was a cemetery question or someone asked for his help, Dirk was there.
A man’s life is not measured in words, because there are never enough words to tell it all.
Dear friend, we miss you and thank you for what you have done and what you have left us.
Lovely tribute, Bill, and so well deserved! Dirk was at the heart (or was the heart) of so many local activities and will be much missed by so many.
Thank you for this thoughtful tribute to Dirk. He was, indeed, a dedicated and wonderful man. I got to visit with him and Mary in their home a couple of times for articles covering "Meet the Pioneers," his wildly popular cemetery reenactment program of early pioneers' lives. He will be sorely missed.
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