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As Shane Wamsley talked with reporters outside Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park about his four-day experience removing vegetation and debris from Jewish grave sites, he paused briefly several times while A trains passed overhead so listeners would not miss one detail of his story.
Wamsley, a Mormon and Utah native, spoke slowly and clearly to his audience Monday and never broke eye contact with them. He talked about the hectic pace of New York City, revealed that he decided to take four days of his vacation time away from his accounting job to come to Queens and described 10-hour workdays spent chopping down trees and pulling out weeds from the 150-year-old Jewish cemetery.
"This is something I have lived for and prepared for for my entire life," said Wamsley, 45. "This has been so wonderful - a wonderful experience."
Wamsley, even pausing while a noisy truck made its way west past the cemetery's south entrance at 80-35 Pitkin Ave., said the farthest east he had been prior to the cleanup was St. Louis.
He is originally from Pickleville, Utah.
Wamsley cleaned the Ozone Park cemetery from May 28 to June 2, excluding Saturday and Sunday, after reading an article six months ago in a weekly Jewish newspaper about the deteriorating condition at Bayside Cemetery. He contacted Dan Whirlin, president of Temple Shaare Zedek, which owns the cemetery, and the two began discussing plans to restore the site taken over by large trees and vegetation that covered tombstones and grave markers.
The 12.5-acre cemetery was also a target of vandalism, said Whirlin, whose congregation is located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He said more than 35,000 bodies are buried at the cemetery that was moved from Manhattan more than a century ago.
Wamsley, with help from several hundred other workers that included Mormon missionaries and City Councilman Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), removed debris during the four days that filled three big dumpsters - and there are two more on order.
"This will be on the forefront of my mind," Wamsley said. "Now I will be able to go back to my wife and thank her for letting me come out here."
Whirlin said his congregation was initially skeptical about accepting Wamsley's help because of past tensions between Jews and Mormons. Whirlin said he met with the congregation's board members prior to accepting Wamsley's offer and contacted the rabbi from a Salt Lake City synagogue where he had volunteered to discuss the intentions of a man traveling thousands of miles to clean up a cemetery.
The rabbi assured him over the phone that Wamsley's motives were genuine. Temple Shaare Zedek's followers decided to hold a dinner with Wamsley during the four-day cleanup to make sure that he had come to Queens just to rejuvenate the cemetery and not to preach religious doctrine.
The congregation was convinced that Wamsley had made the journey to Queens in an attempt to build a bridge with the Jewish community with a gesture of goodwill.
A guarantee was also made between Whirlin and Wamsley that specifically said the goal of the cleanup was to help the ailing cemetery and not to recruit potential religious followers.
Wamsley, whose first wife was Jewish and is now dead, told reporters Monday about his previous experiences in helping Jewish cemeteries. Back home in Salt Lake City, he prepared a map database for a Jewish congregation that detailed the plot locations of those buried at the site.
He talked more, however, of his present wife and their relationship. He said he regularly called her to discuss the project with her and his thoughts and feelings on the progress of the cleanup.
Dressed in dirty jeans, hiking boots that had taken on the brown color of soil, a no-longer-white button-up T-shirt and a permanent smile, Wamsley then walked over to Whirlin and thanked him for allowing him to work on the clean-up project. The two then hugged for about 30 seconds.
Looking into Whirlin's eyes, Wamsley said: "I hope you don't mind if I come back. You teach me so much."
Together the pair managed to rally support for the preservation and care of the cemetery that Whirlin said had been an eyesore in the Ozone Park community for several years. He said the condition of the cemetery has deteriorated since revenues for temples started declining in the 1970s and fewer people wanted to be buried at the cemetery.
The cemetery costs $100,000 per year to maintain - a hefty price, Whirlin said, to pay for a site that brings in little revenue.
"We had been looking for ways to improve the condition of the cemetery," Whirlin said. "It had been difficult to maintain it on the level we would want to."
Whirlin said his congregation wants to partner with local schools and civic organizations to ensure the progress that Wamsley and the other volunteers achieved is permanent. He said Wamsley was able to clear vegetation and brush away growth that had blocked gravestones and covered a large portion of the cemetery.
The temple employs two maintenance workers for the cemetery, but Whirlin said the site is too vast for them to clean by themselves.
As a car pulled up to take Wamsley, his chainsaw, rope and four cross-sections of wood from felled cemetery trees to John F. Kennedy International Airport for his flight home, the two partners in the venture to clean the cemetery promised one another that this was only the beginning.
"I will be reflecting on this from now until the day I pass," Wamsley said. "But this is not a four-day project. This was the genesis of a project that will continue for years."
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.
©2003 Community Newspaper Group
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