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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

History comes alive again at 29th Evergreen Cemetery Walk

The 29th annual Evergreen Cemetery Walk kicks off Saturday, beginning two weekends of walking tours through the historic Bloomington graveyard.

Each year, the live theater production introduces more than 3,000 people to some of McLean County's dearly departed. Many of them are school-aged participants visiting on field trips for an immersive local history lesson. The McLean County Museum of History, which produces the event with Illinois Voices Theatre, has continued making a virtual tour for those who prefer to engage from home.

Between museum staff, actors and theater professionals and volunteers, about 50 people participate in researching, writing and producing each year’s cemetery walk. Volunteers Diane Hawk and Mike DeVore have both participated for more than 20 years.

A woman stands in a cemetery holding a sign that says, "1." She reads from a laminated script.
Emily Bollinger
Diane Hawk has volunteered for the Evergreen Cemetery Walk for more than 20 years. She first got excited about history by attending the funeral of Adlai E. Stevenson, II, at Evergreen Cemetery in middle school.

“I love history and I love the way this history is presented,” said Hawk, who started as a field trip guide for school-aged visitors. “That’s where I started, then I got roped into more and more.”

Hawk first got excited about history in middle school.

“One of my first experiences with the cemetery was when Adlai E. Stevenson II died,” she said. “I lived not far from here. At that time, we could just cut across the railroad tracks. We came here for the funeral.”

During the walk, groups follow their guides through the cemetery for timed performances by charismatic characters. Along the way, they give additional tidbits of information about the upcoming subjects or the cemetery itself. While the actors’ monologues are written by playwrights and other actors, the scripts are crafted by the volunteers themselves.

Increased efforts have been made in recent years to diversify selections in a variety of ways. DeVore is part of a group of volunteers who researches and selects the group beginning in January, ensuring gender and racial diversity, plus one visiting character who is buried elsewhere.

This year, the guest spot goes to Paul Rhymer, portrayed by John D. Poling in his third appearance at the Evergreen Cemetery Walk. Rhymer, a Bloomington High School graduate, was a writer and radio personality best known for the show “Vic and Sade.” He’s buried in Lexington Cemetery.

The tour also ventures near the grave sites of photographer John Jackson “J.J.” Mayes, Jr. (Kevin Paul Wickart), innovative farmer Samuel Noble King and Mary Reed King (Nathan Brandon Gaik and Connie Blick), music educator Frances Kessler (Nancy Nickerson), nurse Annie Ethel Jones (Darraugh Maxine) and Civil War veteran and political activist Richard Blue (Gregory D. Hicks).

What happened to the statues?

Fans and frequent cemetery visitors may notice a few things missing this year. Wooden statues of an airplane and baseball legend Old Hoss Radbourn were recently removed, having toppled over when their tree stump bases rotted from termite damage.

Evergreen staff said the airplane is not salvageable and they will attempt to return Old Hoss to his resting place with a new stump. For now, the wooden likeness of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz is holding up well.

The Evergreen Cemetery walk runs Sept. 30-Oct. 8 at Evergreen Cemetery, 302 E. Miller St., Bloomington. Tours are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 at mchistory.org. Virtual tours are $25 per household.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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