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Lowell sexton Don DeJong retiring after decades of service

by Alantha Owen

Lowell’s long-time Sexton, Don DeJong, retired at the end of August after 24 years with the city. DeJong was responsible for overseeing the grounds at Oakwood Cemetery, as well as maintaining the landscaping downtown. His dedication to perfection and attention to detail will be missed by the community. “I treated everything downtown like it was mine to take care of,” said DeJong.

DeJong, who has a degree in social work, never expected to make a career of working for the city. Before arriving in Lowell, he worked with juveniles in Montana and Kansas, as well as developmentally disabled adults in Minnesota.  “I came to Michigan in 1985, to work in a children’s home outside of Lowell. I did that for seven years until it folded because of lack of money. There are still juvenile problems in this state, as well as every state, but the funding was always kind of tricky. I did handyman jobs for two years until my wife saw these ads in the Lowell paper for two positions with the city of Lowell. I looked at it and thought, ‘I think I can do that one.’ I thought it was a temp job. I never imagined that I would feel so fulfilled and so blessed to have a career digging graves.” In 24 years, DeJong says that he has buried more than 900 people at Oakwood cemetery.

Of course, for DeJong, the position of sexton was much more than merely digging graves. He embraced the opportunity to work with grieving families. “I have a caretaker’s heart. It just became so meaningful, the little details to honor people. Everyone who is buried up there is precious to someone. It wasn’t a job, it was really a ministry, caring for individuals and doing those extra things. It’s a part of our lives, the reality that we’re all going to die, but the care for the place is valuable. It’s important to give honor [to those who have passed].” 

Over the course of his tenure, DeJong also became a local history expert. Oakwood Cemetery was established in 1872 and DeJong is credited with connecting older headstones to the history of the individuals buried there. He has written a number of books on the history of Lowell and its notable residents. He came to know the stories of everyone in the cemetery so well, he could imagine their faces while he was trimming weeds around the headstones. DeJong plans to continue his efforts to bolster the legacy of former Lowell residents through writing and has two additional books in the works. Included in these upcoming volumes will be stories of Lowell icons like Ivan Blough, Don Beachum and Bob Perry.

This past weekend, DeJong had the opportunity to share some of these stories as he led people on a tour of the cemetery sponsored by the Lowell Area Historical Museum. But to him, it’s more than just a story. He reminds us that these were real people who had unique experiences. “You can’t look at their lives through our prism of the twentieth century. You need to explore what it must have been like for them at that with what they knew. That makes it more intriguing. One of the stories is about a woman who came over from Europe. She only spoke German and French, she didn’t speak English at all. She had read stories of the wild of America she arrived in Battle Creek at 1:00 am in a snowstorm. She arrived at a log inn and was too afraid to go to either of the rooms. She thought it was a trap – a den of thieves would get her and she would be murdered. It’s hard to imagine what she was experiencing, what she was feeling. She was 28 years old. She had left her husband, expecting him to come and one year later he died and she never saw him again. She eventually made her way up to Vergennes, where she found her brother who had arrived 18 years earlier.” His empathy and compassion are evident as he tells this story, putting himself into the shoes of a young immigrant woman, “We can’t imagine what that would have been like for her, not knowing the language and only having heard these stories.”

In retirement, DeJong plans to devote more time to his hobbies, including creating quotes on his antique letterpress printer. You may have seen some of his cards displayed at various businesses around town. Letterpress is a method of relief printing that DeJong learned from his grandfather, “he had two cabinets of 10 drawers each, of different size fonts.” Every weekend, he tries to print three quotes to share. “They’re reminders. We get busy in life and we forget.”

However, his first priority as he moves into this new phase of life is his family. He has been married to his wife, Marianne, for 42 years. They have three children and six grandchildren. He is looking forward to spending more time with his family and tackling some projects at home. “I’m kind of amazed at how much I’ve ignored my own property because I’ve spent so much time in town,” he laughs. “I’ve got lots of to-dos of my own. It’s been good to make this adjustment, it really has.”

One thing is for sure, DeJong has absolutely no intentions of slowing down, “I’m a worker bee,” he laughs. “It’s how God wired me.” While he is excited about having more time to do the things he enjoys, he will certainly miss serving as sexton. “It wasn’t a job, it was something I enjoyed. I never saw it coming. I couldn’t have scripted it. I wouldn’t have known. And that’s the way it is sometimes in life and jobs. I’ll miss the opportunities that I had, especially touching families. I’m just grateful -- really, really grateful.”

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