After half-century of serving as parish cemetery sexton, Shallow retires

By | October 31, 2012

“I worked my way into that,” said Shallow, the oldest of 15 children in his family. “Hanging around the daughter, he kind of introduced me to a shovel. I helped him with a few graves. I was a little farm boy back then who helped everybody.”


Oliver Shallow, Jr., a member of St. Anne Parish in Lena, is pictured at St. Charles Cemetery, where he served as sexton for 51 years. Shallow recently retired and his son Gary has succeeded him. (Rick Evans | For The Compass)

Junior and Margaret were married on April 7, 1951. They farmed in Suring for five years before returning to Lena.

“We got (a farm) between the father and the father-in-law,” explained Junior. “That was a big help for me to work with both of them. I didn’t have to buy so much big machinery because they had it.”

The Shallows, who have five sons and three daughters, later bought a larger farm. Junior, who had only gone to school through the eighth grade, took night classes to expand his education on new farming methods. He credits, Margaret, who was an elementary school teacher, for her support.

Trustees from St. Charles Parish approached Junior about the sexton’s position shortly after his father-in-law’s funeral.

“It was kind of a rough time considering our anniversary and everything,” he said. “You had to dig the graves by hand back then.”

Junior agreed to serve in the position for a year and only to take care of the graves. He wanted no part of selling burial plots.

“I knew three-quarters of the people around here and the parish, so first thing you know, I was selling lots, collecting the money and doing everything from then on,” he said. “I fell into it. I never had any problems.”

Junior added that he wouldn’t have been successful without Margaret’s help. He also praises the work of his sister, Carmen, and Fr. Arthur Danks, pastor in Lena in the late 1950s and early 1960s, for making his job easier. They had the cemetery property surveyed, which improved the record keeping and mapped the gravesites.

Junior has a log book with entries for all 678 burials during his term as sexton. It was difficult digging graves for friends, he said. Tragic events also stand out, including an automobile accident in 1963 that killed three people from one family. Another member of the parish died shortly after, so he recalls digging four graves at that time.

Other difficult moments that stand out include two separate lightning strikes that caused damage to the cemetery, a flash flood in 1979 and reaching out to a distraught mother whose son died in a school bus accident.

One of Junior’s favorite memories involved helping three women who wanted him to throw out their parents’ stone because it was discolored from moss.

“They wanted me to take it to the dump,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh my, do you realize that your parents farmed for six months at least to pay for that stone. All it takes is some (detergent) and some warm water and that stone will be white in five minutes.’ I cleaned it for them just to show them. That stone is there today. People make mistakes that way, but there are a lot of good people in the world that you help. There are a lot more good people than bad.”

Junior’s dedication extended beyond the four-acre cemetery. He recently retired as an usher at the Lena site of St. Anne Parish after 65 years of service. He served on the Lena School Board, including two terms as president, and the Little River Town Board and Oconto County Board. He also assisted Farmer’s Home Association and the Commission for Aging, and has been a longtime advocate for those with developmental disabilities.

His son, Gary, has succeeded him as sexton. Gary’s wife, Trudy, now handles the cemetery bookkeeping. The couple also took over the family farm when Junior and Margaret retired in 1990. All of the Shallow children live in Oconto County, and until last year, seven of the eight were farmers.

In his early years at the cemetery, Junior was also responsible for mowing, a task he was happy to relinquish. He also advises families to buy enough land for burial plots.

“It’s tough to get the people to understand that they should buy a little more while not pushing your cemetery,” he said, “but they all think they can be together in a little place.”

Simple rewards such as kind words kept Junior going over the years, he added.

“The people always said that our cemetery looked nice and it does,” he said. “I never charged people on Sundays when they were doing family trees and needed help finding graves. I think I knew how to treat people and I just loved it.”

He also takes pride that no mistakes were made with burial plots in his 51 years.

“That is something wonderful,” he said. “I’m proud of that. I’m proud of our little cemetery.”

Related Posts

Scroll to Top