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A cemetery rises again ; After vandalism and disrepair, volunteers at Concordia Cemetery start survival plan

Concordia Cemetery sits like an unpolished treasure, hidden away from the better-known jewels, largely ignored, unappreciated and even disrespected.

And now one of the landmark's hopes for survival -- restitution by a former treasurer, William Whitehead, who stole $154,000 in cemetery funds -- is gone.

Concordia, opened two years before Abraham Lincoln became president and home to 125 Civil War veterans, is ending its legal battle and settling for a fraction of what the convicted embezzler still owed the East Side cemetery.

"We're moving on," said Michael Kuzma, a Concordia lawyer and volunteer. "We're looking forward. We're not dwelling on the past."

The settlement is seen by Concordia's growing group of volunteers as a symbolic start to a new era, a time of renewed hope.

And one of the things they point to is the outpouring of support that followed the news last month that vandals had overturned 25 to 30 headstones, some dating to the 1880s.

"People drove over with checks," said Bonnie Fleischauer, a board member. "One woman pledged $1,000. It was heart-warming to see the response."

For the first time in a long time, there's a sense that Concordia, on the verge of abandonment a few years ago, can now survive, even thrive.

One of the reasons why is the new seven-member board and 20 or so volunteers who bring energy and passion to what many thought was a lost cause. Many of the new faces have family members, sometimes generations, buried in the 152-year-old cemetery.

"We think we can develop a strength from our history," said Diane Savatteri, volunteer board president. "Our financial problems are nothing compared to what my grandparents and great-grandparents went through."

There's an old saying at Concordia that the "rich go to Forest Lawn, the working class go here."

Located on Walden Avenue near Sycamore Street, the 15-acre cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of immigrants, many of them Germans who made Buffalo their home.

The cemetery also is known for its diverse collection of monuments and the 450 veterans buried there.

With the Whitehead scandal behind them, cemetery volunteers can now focus on the future, most notably the creation of a nonprofit group to oversee the landmark.

"We're trying to reach beyond the iron gates into the community," Savatteri said.

For years, the board fought hard to get all of the money Whitehead still owed it, but over time that became a distant reality.

The former treasurer filed for bankruptcy several years ago and was able to reduce his outstanding debt to the cemetery -- he had paid back nearly half of what he owed the cemetery -- to $23,000 from $87,000.

Not surprisingly, board members view the $10,000 settlement as more than they ever expected to further collect from Whitehead.

"This was the best possible outcome," Kuzma said.

The board is trying to raise awareness about the cemetery's history and has so far found a receptive ear throughout the community.

"People are coming out of the woodwork," board member Debbera Ransom said. "These are people who tell me, 'I have an uncle there. I have a grandparent there.' "

The plea for help also caught the attention of Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes and Common Council President David A. Franczyk. Both are working with board members to create a new nonprofit management structure.

The board also is looking into new ways of raising money, including tours, memberships and grants.

In a strange way, the recent vandalism seemed to galvanize support for the cemetery.

After the embezzlement, the cemetery found itself almost penniless, unable to pay for even the most mundane maintenance services.

The result was one of the region's oldest cemeteries, recently named to the New York State and National Register of Historic Places, overrun with weeds and overgrown grass.

The community, in this case the Erie County Sheriff's Office, again responded. The sheriff sent jail inmates to cut the grass and repair the grave sites and headstones at Concordia.

"Each of those stones represents a person," said Ransom, who lives nearby. "I'm part of this community and when something devastating happens, we as a people have to stand tall."

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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