Preserving the State Cemetery

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PHOTO BY JEFF HEIMSATH
Will Erwin

Will Erwin, senior historian at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, describes himself as a “history dork.” His love of history attracted him to a job where he’s a Jack-of-all-trades. Erwin, 36, blogs, leads tours, helps with funerals, occasionally tends the grounds and co-wrote with Jason Walker a book about the cemetery, the final resting place of state elected officials, cultural figures and Confederate soldiers.

“If you look on our website, I’m the only historian. I’m actually on a research staff of two; my supervisor, Jason Walker, is the head of the research department. … There used to be more than one historian on staff, but we’ve had to make our dollars stretch more and more each year. That’s why you see me with the weed eater in that one picture. … If I could have a laptop and be outside mowing, that would probably make me happy. I like being outside and I also like writing.

“The best funeral I’ve ever been to was [journalist and novelist] Bud Shrake’s. He’s buried right next to [former Gov.] Ann Richards. I hate to say it was a cool funeral, but that was probably the coolest one—that and Ann Richards’. Jerry Jeff Walker came out and he sang a few songs. People came out and told stories about him. It was not like your traditional funeral … People were telling jokes about Bud and stories about when he was drinking. If I’m going to have a funeral, I want it to be like Bud’s where everybody’s telling stories.

“You know when kids are into the tours. We have about 15,000 school kids a year. … The kids always love the story of Josiah Wilbarger who lived for 12 years after being scalped by Indians in what’s now Travis County. I try to do dual honor to both Josiah and J. Frank Dobie who wrote a version of his story that is so violent and so gross that you can’t even tell the whole thing. … There’s a picture of Josiah. He never grew his scalp back.

“It’s one of those jobs [in which] you could end up doing anything. For one funeral, I remember the family was very distraught. I won’t mention names. The grief was so close to the surface. It was a fairly unexpected death. They didn’t know what they wanted. I remember they said they wanted handfuls of dirt put on top of the casket. It’s an old tradition. … I went back and I got a shovel and a bucket, and I went and found some dirt. … You do what you have to do. Sometimes it’s just giving old ladies a ride to the funeral site.

“I’ve always been a little ADHD, so a lot of different tasks is OK with me, and that really suits what we do here. If I had one aspect to pick, my favorite part of the job would be tours for kids. I love the writing. I love the blog. I like the historical research. But if you really come right down to it, the most rewarding part of the job is getting a kid interested in history. It doesn’t happen on every tour. I’ll be honest with you. … But if you get a group of 4th graders interested in Texas history and you can fire them up about Texas history, then it’s a job well done.”