Some friends of mine just bought a house on Virginia Terrace with a backyard that overlooks Forest Hill Cemetery.
It gave them momentary pause while they were considering the purchase. Did they really want to live next to a cemetery?
Dennis McCann, a longtime Milwaukee newspaperman, would have no such qualms.
“You couldn’t ask for better neighbors,” McCann was saying recently.
McCann, who took a buyout from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2007 after nearly a quarter-century with the paper, likes cemeteries. In a new city, he’ll gravitate toward them in the way others might seek out museums or bookstores or bars.
In a preface to his new book, “Badger Boneyards: The Eternal Rest of the Story,” McCann writes, “As a traveling newspaperman, I often found stories in cemeteries the way political reporters find them at city hall or sports reporters find them in a gym.”
McCann, who turns 60 next month, said he’s had the title in his mind for years. Then, shortly after he left the Journal Sentinel, he was asked to lunch by Kathy Borkowski at Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Borkowski asked if he had any book ideas.
“I want to write a book about Wisconsin cemeteries,” McCann said.
Recalling the conversation recently, McCann laughed. “She got this funny look on her face.”
Still, Borkowski asked for some sample chapters, and once McCann produced them, they struck a deal.
That’s probably because when McCann sits down to write his stories, marvelous things happen.
A Janesville native, McCann now divides his time between Madison and Bayfield. He worked on the Janesville Gazette before moving to the Milwaukee Journal in 1983. He’d always admired Bill Stokes — who traveled the state for the Journal, uncovering one entertaining feature after another — and soon it was McCann who was doing the roving, searching out local legends and colorful characters, and introducing them to his readers in fluid prose that made writing look easy, which it is not.
As McCann notes in the new preface, he often found himself in cemeteries: “It might sound funny to say the dead have inspired a lot of stories for me, but it’s true.”
One of McCann’s favorite tales from “Badger Boneyards” is titled “The Virgin Em and Her Many Husbands,” and it began in the reading room of the La Crosse Public Library.
Reading a book on the history of La Crosse, McCann came upon a profile of Emma Eastman, a woman seemingly unwilling to give divorce a chance. She married nine times, and is spending eternity with three of her husbands who are buried near her in a cemetery in McGregor, Iowa, just across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin.
McCann drove straight to McGregor from La Crosse and got the story.
The new book tracks some famous graves, including that of John Heisman in Forest Home Cemetery in Rhinelander. The annual award recognizing the nation’s best college football player is named for Heisman, who has a simple, ground-level stone next to his wife, Edith.
At least Heisman, presumably, is still under the stone. In a chapter titled “The Man Who Isn’t There,” McCann tells the strange story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s exhumation in March 1985 from his grave at Unity Chapel near Taliesin in Spring Green.
Twenty-six years after the architect’s death, his body was sent to Taliesin West, in accordance with his widow’s dying wish.
Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery — my friends’ new neighbor — gets a chapter, too. McCann focuses on the Confederate soldiers — Civil War prisoners — buried in an area of Forest Hill called Confederate Rest.
McCann calls Forest Hill “as much a history park as a burying place,” a description that holds for many cemeteries, and goes a long way toward explaining their considerable if unlikely attraction.