Though many people may be spooked or saddened by the sight of a cemetery, to Harold Robertson, a well-maintained cemetery is visual evidence that good volunteers are at work.
He started recording tombstone inscriptions in the 1950s and now, at age 86, the Smallwood resident has served on the board of three cemeteries, and documented more than 5,000 graves and inscriptions of those interred in Carroll County.
On Oct. 17, Robertson will be honored in the individual category at the Community Foundation of Carroll County’s 13th annual Philanthropists of the Year awards. Nonprofit (Lynn Wheeler/Carroll County Public Library), Youth (Jordan Costley), Legacy (Howard Koontz) and Business (Integral Components) award winners will also be recognized at the event.
Robertson demurred when asked about the recognition.
“It’s not about me, it’s about all the volunteers. … I got the award, but I wish I could give a little piece of it to everybody,” he said.
Service is an important part of his life.
“Figure out what needs to be done, what you’re interested in and what you’re qualified to help [with], but do it,” he recommenced.
Nominator Melvin Blizzard Jr., is Robertson’s successor as president of Deer Park Methodist Cemetery’s board of trustees.
With knowledge of how much time the job requires, Blizzard said Robertson is deserving of the award, especially considering he has served on the board of two other cemeteries and put in 45 years of volunteer work.
“He’s just done so much, and he’s never accepted a penny for it,” he said.
Thinking over his duties, Blizzard listed handling all burials, selling plots, placing cornerstones, assisting with the placement of tombstones, running meetings and running publications like the cemetery newsletter.
Requests for burial services could come at any time and the president must be ready to take a phone call and speak to a family in the midst of grief.
“It is rewarding, to be able to help people. And people go through very very rough times,” he said.
Robertson graduated from Mount Airy High School and attended then-Western Maryland College for two years before he joined the Army in 1952 under the draft. He finished Officer’s Candidate School second in the class and was eventually given a command post of an anti-aircraft artillery battalion in Massachusetts. After the Army, he worked in the financial sector before retiring.
Geneology has been an interest since he was in high school. He took his first motorbike ride from Mount Airy to the county courthouse in Westminster in 1948. He documented thousands of descendants of his great-great grandparents, Jeremiah and Ann Smith Robertson, the ninth couple to be married in Carroll County in a 315-page book.
When he first started in the Carroll County Geneological Society, he joined their efforts, led by Mary Ann Ashcraft, to copy the tombstone inscriptions of all the known cemeteries in the county.
He started out volunteering in the southwestern part of the county as he looked for relatives for his own genealogical projects.
Teams went out Sunday afternoons all over the county. For the most difficult to read grave markers, the volunteers would dust them with flour using a soft brush. This made the words easier to read and washed away during the next rainfall.
He has served as the society’s president and secretary.
Blizzard said one of Robertson’s biggest achievements during that time was preventing the genealogical documents stored in the Davis History Room of the Westminster Branch of the Carroll County Public Library from being moved. He gathered the mayor, and the state delegate and senator from the area to come out in support.
“My position was that geneology was the history of the people making history,” he said.
He became a member of three cemetery boards mostly by chance paired with a willingness to say yes.
In 1988, he was hanging around the church at Deer Park, a short drive from his home in Smallwood, where his first wife Elaine taught Sunday school and chose to sit in on the cemetery board meeting being held at the same time.
The board’s president nominated him to take over the role shortly after.
When he began, the finances were just over $46,000. In 2017, they were around $366,300.
Having invested in the stock market since the 1960s his experience was helpful in boosting the organization’s resources.
Part of this was the cemetery’s newsletter. Establishing the mailing list meant finding a family contact for nearly every one of the 442 graves. At that time, this meant combing through obituaries for next of kin and looking them up in the phone book. He typed, mailed and assembled the newsletters for 22 years.
After being involved with Deer Park, he attended a meeting of Pleasant Ridge Cemetery, more personal to him because it was where his parents, grandparents and several great-grandparents were at rest.
At the first meeting he attended, the secretary/ treasurer, 75 years old at the time and facing health problems, asked him to take over the role. He still holds the position more than 20 years later.
Westminster came looking for him through the Genealogical Society just before Board President George Billingslea died in 2003. Billingslea wanted to see the inscriptions at the cemetery recorded and published, and Robertson volunteered to become a manager of the cemetery.
A month into his duties, the the managers chose him as vice president. Starting the next day, Halloween, he single-handedly recorded and cross-checked more than 5,600 names and inscriptions to fulfill Billingslea’s wishes and build the data for the Westminster Cemetery Book.
He also learned that the vice president was in charge of the Grounds Funds Account. At that time he was 71 years old.
The state of the place was “tombstones laying all over the place and no money to work with. So I started a newsletter,” he said.
This time, the mailing list consisted of 1,000 names. Sales of the book were another source of revenue.
Contributions allowed them to stabilize tombstones and re-landscape the two oldest sections.
“We shaped up the cemetery in a hurry,” he said.
Current president and former Westminster Common council president Suzanne Albert said as vice president, Robertson continually updates the burial lot owners and veterans’ lists for the cemetery.
On Memorial Day, the list of veterans allows the Boy Scouts to place a flag at each veteran’s grave.
Today, Robertson hopes to inspire others to support and volunteer for the cemeteries in which their families are interred. But any kind of volunteer service is enriching.
“Start some place and start while you're young. It’ll get to be part of your life,” he said. “Your volunteer work will be more rewarding than what you're paid for because you'll feel that you have offered something to society.”
If you go
What: Carroll County Philanthropists of the Year
When: 7:30 a.m. (registration opens at 7 a.m.) Wednesday, Oct. 17
For tickets: Contact Jacie Mathias Jones at the Community Foundation of Carroll County at 410-876-5505, ext. 102.