Finding Stories Of Life Among The Tombstones

Woodland is a mostly-hidden, wonderfully wooded hilltop cemetery in Dayton, Ohio. The humorist Erma Bombeck is buried there, as are the famous Wright brothers, their sister and father. We take a walk through Woodland for Weekend Edition Sunday's travel segment, "Wingin' It."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With the last of the autumn leaves clinging to their branches, botanical gardens and even cemeteries are wonderful places to visit. NPR's Noah Adams has a favorite - cemetery, that is - and he takes us there as part of our Wingin' It series - finding places that might surprise you. Here's Noah's postcard from Dayton, Ohio.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: We are at Woodland Cemetery - much of it overlooking Dayton's river valley. And we'll start up here on this hilltop. There' a blue flag with a white airplane. It flies over the Wright family plot.

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ADAMS: There are plain granite markers for Wilbur and Orville and Katherine, their sister.

HANS HARTWIG: Well, I got to get the quarter down on one of them.

ADAMS: This is Hans Hartwig, an engineering student at the nearby University of Dayton. He always places a tribute coin on one of the markers. Lots of people seem to do that.

HARTWIG: I don't know if that's a tradition or not - or if that's documented - but every time I've come here, you put a coin next - down by one of the grave sites.

ADAMS: My first time at Woodland was the summer of 2002. I was working then on a book about the Wright Brothers. Now, I live in a town nearby, and it's easy to come over for a walk.

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ADAMS: These days, the graves are dug by backhoe. Rufus Slate runs a six-man cemetery crew.

RUFUS SLATE: They do more than just one job. These two gentlemen digging the graves are also the cremationists.

BETH DUTENHAVER: The king and queen of gypsies is supposed to be buried here. I don't know where.

ADAMS: Beth Dutenhaver is at Woodland on this day, for a memorial service. When Queen Matilda died in 1878, a thousand carriages arrived in procession. Also Dayton famous and Woodland buried: Paul Laurence Dunbar, the African-American poet; George Huffman - that's Huffy bicycles; Charles Kettering, the electric starter for the automobile; John Patterson - his company became NCR. Erma Bombeck is still loved in her hometown. She wrote about being a wife and a mom, and a who-cares cook. One of the Woodland volunteer tour guides, Dawn Luker, offers her top six, most-visited graves.

DAWN LUKER: Erma, Johnny Morehouse, the Gypsies, the Wright Brothers, Paul Laurence Dunbar; and then the town madam, Madame Richter, is always a popular one.

ADAMS: That second name on the list, Johnny Morehouse - a 5-year-old. He was playing and fell in the canal. His dog jumped in, but Johnny died. There's a stone carving of the boy and his dog, and people often leave things here. Victoria Ritchie likes to see what arrives.

VICTORIA RITCHIE: Stuffed animals and race cars, Batman, Spiderman, Ninja Turtles - that kind of stuff.

ADAMS: Dayton, Ohio's, Woodland Cemetery now settles into winter. The dog walkers keep on coming; and the runners, especially for the hills. When you visit anytime, it changes your day. The stories seem to rise up from 107,000 graves.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

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