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Graveside grace: College instructor tackles aging tombstones at historic cemeteries

A San Antonio college professor said cleaning tombstones is a pastime that spoke to him one day. Over 440 grave markers later, he's still scrubbing.

SAN ANTONIO — Joe found passion in a place where many would not speak of it. Honestly, there's no talking at all. 

He cleans tombstones at San Fernando Cemetery #1 and #2.

"I have a few family members here who died more than 80 years ago," he said.

Joe asked KENS 5 to refrain from using his last name. He's open to talking about his graveside grace but wants to remain a figure in the background.

"This is all about the stories from a historian teaching history," he said. "I'm not going to muddy the waters with who I am or what I've done."

The 44-year-old admits he's a college history instructor who wanted to do something at the historic cemeteries after seeing the toll of nature and age.

"Through no other fault than just time," he said. "Some of the stones needed the most care."

The Archdiocese of San Antonio has its crews for cemetery upkeep. Jordan McMorrough, communications director, said they are aware of Joe's effort. But they haven't endorsed it.

Joe, who does not want anyone to mistake his heartfelt acts as those of a rogue, said he's helping because the archdiocese can't do it all.

"There's no rhyme or reason to me choosing them," Joe said. "I guess grace kind of lets me know."

Two years ago, his spiritual compass led him to clean the graves with a solution he bought called D/2. He goes with the bottled biological solution, buckets, water and a brush.

"I don't move anything. I just use water and a brush," Joe said.

According to Joe, he's cleaned 445 grave markers, scrubbing four to five stones every week.

"Most people find it out of the ordinary. But somebody has to do it, I think," he said.

The sound of active bristles at work, water drenching the lichen-covered stones and the squirt of his sprayed bottle blend in with birds chirping as he works on gravesites which have been in place since the 19th and 20th centuries.

"To me, it was kind of a shame that you can't even read the lettering anymore," he said.

Removing the filthy paste of time and nature is tedious, but not a harsh scrub, he said. Joe uses time against time.

He said the larger stones take at least an hour to complete. Follow-up maintenance could mean treatments for three months.

"Some of them can take up to a year," he said.

Joe said he researched the cleaning techniques. That research bug also started to crawl all over his curiosity.

"These people have stories. And there's enough stuff to be found on the internet," he said. "It looks like some of these people, their graves haven't been visited in decades."

So, Joe became a death detective of sorts. He started to dig into the pasts of the graves. The history instructor wanted to find out their history.

"Thought about doing an Instagram where I could tell the stories in a respectful manner," he said. "And as a Catholic, it is a corporate work of mercy."

He launched an Instagram page to showcase his cleaning effort and highlighting the stories from the grave.

"If you look at some of them, there's no one alive who ever met these people," he said. "Last of kin or next of kin who knew them in life are long gone."

In posts, he writes about the tragic and the heroic. Hugo Schomer is one of those stories.

Per Joe's research, the 12-year-old boy was finishing a paper route in the 1400 block of Somerset Road when a passing car hit and killed him. According to the post, the driver kept going. It said police arrested a sheet metal worker from Kelly Air Force Base.

The post stated that the 25-year-old suspect was sentenced to 90 days in jail for negligent homicide after pleading guilty. Joe wrote the man got four years of probation for the charge of failure to stop and render aid. He also noted a murder indictment failed, and the suspect moved to Odessa with a "good reputation."

"The research is the hard part," Joe said. "Because a lot of these names are misspelled."

He said the Spanish surnames were often taken down wrongly by clerks, who sometimes wrote phonetically. Velasquez, for instance, could be in the system as Velaskez.  

In those instances, Joe misspells until he finds the name. Then, Joe, who is Latino, corrects it.

"There's a lot of immigrants here," he said. "There's a lot of Mexicans who came here during the Mexican revolution, who died in a foreign land. There is a lot of Irish immigrants. There's a lot of Italian immigrants. There's some Lebanese immigrants; there's all sorts of people here."

Joe recalls the deaths of two siblings, Silio and Rosa Bafaro, who died of diptheria.

"They died on the same day in 1905," he said. "Their father had immigrated from Italy in the building where the Palm restaurant is downtown."

Joe said he isn't some creepy guy who walks through the graveyard at night with a lantern. He has respect for the dead and their stories, especially those who history may forget.

"Private Jose Ortegon," he said. "He was born here in San Antonio."

The 21-year-old, according to Joe, was wounded in World War I. Ortegon, he said, after convalescing for a week, went back on on the frontlines, where he was killed. 

Ortegon's death made the newspaper in Spanish and English. But today, who, Joe wonders, knows his name?

"He was a hero, and you never heard of him," he said.

His detective work even led to the posthumous awarding of a Purple Heart and World War I Victory Medal award to Pvt. Mateo Martinez. In conjunction with Martinez's family, the awards recognize the soldier's service during three battles.

"These people have been forgotten long enough, I think."

He is not sure when his tombstone mission will end. But he continues to learn from those whose souls have gone on.

"They were dying of things that are totally curable today." he said. "Not a lot of cancers."

There are times Joe said he'll recite the rosary as he works. The husband and college instructor has not considered if his final resting place will be where he's putting in so much elbow grease.

He remembers his grandmother telling him "Aya, vamos," which translates to: "We're all headed that way."