Don Price takes tremendous care in his job as sexton of Orlando's Greenwood Cemetery and is devoted to keeping the city's history alive.
She meandered along the headstones, stopping for a moment here and there to learn the names and read the epitaphs.
The woman — dressed appropriately in knee-high boots, leggings, a wool skirt and a heavy black coat on the cold Central Florida day — told Don Price, “This is my favorite place to be; it's so peaceful.”
He agreed with her, ready to engage in conversation if she wanted to. But she was content to move on, lost in her thoughts, slowly making her way around the cemetery.
As sexton of Orlando's Greenwood Cemetery, Price frequently encounters people looking to find peace among the deceased.
He's there for those who seek comfort just off the hilly paths, under the old shade trees and among the quiet headstones, but he knows cemeteries aren't for everyone.
“There are people who actually have to visit,” he said. “My grandfather died probably 15 years ago, and I think I've visited his grave once. But whenever I go fishing, I tie my lure the way he taught me.”
Price — a Winter Garden resident who grew up in West Orange County — has a great respect for Orlando's history and is known for being able to share a random historical fact if asked.
He also takes tremendous pride in “his” cemetery and the folks who are there in their final rest.
“I try to visit most all the graves,” he said. “Every morning I do a drive of all the graves to see if anything's out of place. After the services we make sure … the grave is raked before the grass is put in.
“Flowers start to die every day, and we just make sure the grave looks clean.”
His job also is to verify all the details involved in burying the deceased.
He gives tours of Orlando’s only public cemetery to social and philanthropic clubs, sharing historic tidbits about many of the 70,000 who are buried there as they come to mind during the walks.
“It's all history because the cemetery is a place of history,” Price said. “I don't care if you were buried yesterday or buried 100 years ago. I want you to always feel like if you come to Greenwood, you are a part of who we are.”
The cemetery is full of memorabilia, too. There are four statues, a cannon and the original Sperry Fountain from Lake Eola. This fountain has become popular as the place to be photographed with Price as the first (insert activity here), such as “the first newspaper interview under the historic Sperry Fountain” or “the first Beefy King lunch shared under the historic Sperry Fountain.”
Its resting place in the cemetery is a stone’s throw away from the gravesite of Frank Ezra Sperry, who was mayor of Orlando from 1914 to 1916.
Price likes knowing he has the original fountain and says the replacement at Lake Eola is only a “faux-tain.”
Last spring, Price got a call from Lee Middle School when its name was changing to College Park Middle School.
“Would you like a cannon?” the caller asked.
“Who wouldn't want a cannon?” Price responded.
To get the 1860s cannon, though, Price would have to show up at the school with a truck and a pair of bolt-cutters. No one knew where the lock key was.
Price and his caretaker, Renard, decided to strap the cannon in backward so it would face the drivers behind the truck — just for kicks. His sense of humor tends to lean in that direction.
As an added bonus, they drove slowly past the Orange County Courthouse, where dozens of reporters were camped out for the Markeith Loyd trial, just to show off his newly acquired gem.
He's not sure of the cannon's history, though. A plaque on it states it was used in Gettysburg in battle in 1863; however, the official stamp on the cannon dates to 1864.
“So it was used 'somewhere,'” Price said, laughing.
KEEPING MEMORIES ALIVE
The Greenwood Cemetery is a gold mine of local history, and Price has stories about many of the deceased. Ken Guernsey, an Orlando pioneer, owned the first hardware store; Ruth Pounds owned a dance studio in Orlando and is a cousin to Winter Garden's Pounds family; July Perry is the black landowner who was killed in the Ocoee race riot in 1920.
“We have these whole different (types) of people that we have to deal with — social status from gang members to doctors and lawyers, from Buddhists to Catholics, all these things that we try to accommodate,” Price said.
“Different cultures are coming in, and we try to make them comfortable but still abide by our rules,” he said.
On New Year's weekend, a Vietnamese family burned incense on the headstone of their loved one and shared some with the surrounding stones.
“Not only did they put it on their grave, but also on the others,” he said. “Death is the equalizer. It was a neat tradition that they burned incense for their spirit, but also for their neighbors.”
Making people feel comfortable is key, Price said. Every day is casual day in the Greenwood office.
“I want everyone who comes in to feel like it's home,” he said. “It's not a funeral home; we're not going to wear suits. A funeral home's going to take care of your family for three days. We're going to take care of your family for 20, 30 years.”
On a recent afternoon, a teenager hesitantly walked into the cemetery office, not sure how to make his request. Price eased the tension with small talk, complimenting the boy's sneakers. The teen was looking for the new grave of a friend, who had died in a motorcycle crash; Price knew the section and location.
“You learn the families, and you learn the consequences, and when I get a call from the funeral home, I try to learn as much about them as possible,” Price said. “For a situation like this, the last thing you want to do is talk about your motorcycle ride last weekend. You want them to feel comfortable in conversation.”
He has discovered that older widowers tend to stop by the office frequently, lonely and in need of that human connection.
Parents who lose children visit often, too, spending time in one of Greenwood Cemetery's three baby sections.
One mother visits daily to write in her journal. She bought the space next to her baby's gravesite so she would always have a place to sit.
Price deals with the occasional complaints, too.
Someone went into the office to tell personnel there was a woman in her swimsuit lying on the grass near a headstone, so Price went to investigate. The woman, seemingly embarrassed, said she would pack her things and leave, but Price talked to her and learned that she and her grandmother used to go to the beach and sunbathe.
“Today, I missed her,” the woman told him.
“You stay as long as you want,” he told her.
Keeping memories alive is important, and Price wants cemetery guests to feel comfortable doing that, whether it's burning incense, writing in a journal or sunbathing.
“Everyone dies twice,” he said. “First, when you take your last breath, and second, when your name is mentioned for the last time.”
Names inscribed on the Greenwood headstones are said aloud often.
On the Friday closest to the full moon, Price conducts moonlight tours of the cemetery starting at 8 p.m. The route on a particular night depends on the crowd and whether or not the participants have taken a previous tour.
“Each story changes because it's not scripted,” he said.
Those who are taking the tour for the first time can learn about ancestors such as the Bumbys and the Robinsons, whose names are emblazoned on downtown Orlando streets, or people such as Parramore, Beacham, Tinker, Gore and Beardall.
“We drive the streets, we know the buildings,” Price said. “ It gives them a chance to learn a little bit about them. They don't teach Orlando's history in schools.”
To register for an upcoming tour, visit greenwood-cemetery.net or — if the word “cemetery” tends to trip you up — cityoforlando.net/greenwood.
“We're 'eerie,' not 'scary,'” Price said. “That's what I tell people so they'll remember there's no 'a' in cemetery.”
Price was camping at Jetty Park the second weekend of June 2016 when he got a call early that Sunday morning that would send his job in a new direction. A mass shooting had taken place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and Mayor Buddy Dyer wanted to know if the cemetery had enough space in one section to set aside for those killed. The number reached 49.
Families were offered no-charge funerals, and a local law firm reimbursed the city.
“We had to do everything in a quick amount of time,” Price said. “Out of 49, 21 went to Puerto Rico. Now that we're getting families here from Puerto Rico after the hurricane, some are wanting to bring their family member back.”
The spaces are still available.
Cemetery and city officials expect to recognize the second anniversary of the shooting by installing a marker for all 49 victims. Tentative plans call for benches to be installed for reflection, as well as water and solar light features.
“Many (of the victims) were shipped soon after so their friends didn't have time to grieve,” Price said.
This addition will allow them that opportunity.
A HISTORICAL POSITION
Price was hired by the city of Orlando in 1987 to work in the archive department under the city clerk.
“It was amazing to go back, and you'd go in the vault and you would see signatures and names and things of people who are our streets and our lakes. As we grew as a city and a department, archives took on more responsibility.
“When (Mayor Buddy) Dyer came in, he really wanted a change of the cemetery,” Price said. “He no longer wanted it to be as a park. He wanted it to be a living place. That was his goal — that this would be the focal point of his city. He has relatives here. He has spaces here. Mayor (Glenda) Hood's family is here. Mayor (Bill) Frederick's family is here. They wanted this place to just come alive.”
Every year the Historical Society of Central Florida presents the Donald A. Cheney Award to a person who champions the community and is dedicated to preserving local history, and Price received it in 2016. He was humbled to be nominated by the mayor for one of the county’s highest history honors and has joined the ranks of other winners such as Grace Chewning, Bob Neel, Jerry Chicone Jr. and Joy Wallace Dickinson.
“A lot of ‘old Orlando’ has won the award, and so to be put into that league was special to me,” Price said. “It was an incredible feeling. All these people I've looked up to all these years.”