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Cemetery walk

John Bowen plays Captain Christian Riebsame, one of eight notable figures from the area's past returning to life this weekend and next via the 21st Annual Evergreen Cemetery Walk.

BLOOMINGTON — After two decades of telling us their stories up close and personal, the dead at Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington remain just as talkative as ever.

And, above all, informative.

For the popular autumn event's 21st edition this weekend and next, eight more figures from the area's past are rising from their resting places to wax historic, with a little help from as many talented actors from Illinois Voices Theatre.

And they're doing it under the guidance of a new director, Rhys Lovell, the local theater veteran taking the reigns from founding director Judy Brown, who retired with the 20th anniversary walk in 2014.

"The walks keep getting better and better with their variety of people," says Candace Summers, one of the event's lead organizers and director of education for the McLean County Museum of History.

Although she finds each of the eight characters compelling, "I'm especially excited by Dr. Marie Louise Crothers (1833-1920), one of the earliest female physicians in the community. It's also neat that her husband supported her career aspirations at time when women weren't anything other than wives and mothers."

Crothers, also the mother of famed playwright Rachel Crothers and eventually the physician in charge of the Girls Industrial Home for four years, will be portrayed by longtime Cemetery Walk participant Kathleen Kirk.

Accordingly, her husband Eli (1826-1893), is also on hand, via veteran walk actor Todd Wineburner, to tell his shared story, which includes being at the center of one of the first malpractice suits in the state of Illinois, along with Dr. Thomas Rogers (1812-1899), who is also a part of the walk and portrayed by local theater dean John Kirk.

The suit was brought against Crothers and Rogers by a man whose broken thigh they had treated and which failed to heal properly. They engaged the services of a lawyer and close friend, name of Abraham Lincoln, whose defense exonerated both doctors.

Summers says she is also fascinated with the saga of Harvey C. DeMotte (1838-1904), who will be portrayed by another walk veteran, Kevin Wickart. 

"His story is really cool," she says of one of Illinois Wesleyan University's first graduates, who was immediately appointed professor of mathematics at IWU, and, a year later, the school's first music teacher. Ultimately, he rose to IWU vice president in between an array of other pursuits, including joining John Wesley Powell on a Colorado surveying expedition.

Also emerging from their resting places over the two weekends are William O. Davis (1837-1911), played by walk first-timer John Poling, recounting the story of the former gold prospector who married Jesse Fell's eldest daughter, Eliza, and became The Pantagraph's publisher for more than 40 years during its most decisive period of growth.

Matilda Calcote (1910-1990), one of the most recently living of all Cemetery Walk characters (she died just 25 years ago), worked several years as a live-in maid to the mother of Adlai Stevenson II, then worked as ship welder during World War II. She returned to B-N, living another 40 years as a member of the African American community. She's portrayed by Gabrielle Lott-Rogers.

Clara Louise Kessler (1893-1968), portrayed by Pamela Devon Lovell, served as head librarian at Withers Public Library, was a huge promoter and supporter of literacy among B-N's youth and compiled/edited the five-volume McLean County history, "Hometown in the Cornbelt 1900-1950."

Last but not least: Capt. Christian Riebsame (1839-1913), played by John Bowen, was a barber who enrolled in the 116th Illinois Infantry in 1862 and rose from private to company commander. In later life, he became flamboyant owner of the a Bloomington saloon, where a monkey named Count Shoveloff was a boarder.

For the second year running, says Summers, the Cemetery Walk is offering its daytime school tours free of charge to area teachers and students through museum member donations and event sponsors (Evergreen Cemetery, CEFCU, The Copy Shop).

"Admission fees were becoming a barrier to learning," says Greg Koos, museum executive director, of schools forced to skip the tour due to budget coinstraints. "The museum's board, members and staff responded by committing to make the walk a free education program for students."

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Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraft


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