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To Save Green Lawn Cemetery, Columbus State Students Track The Damage

Columbus State Community College
Doreen Whitley Rogers (left) and Nicole Distelhorst at Green Lawn Cemetery

The aftermath of a string of vandalism at Green Lawn Cemetery had become utterly overwhelming.

Between September 2015 and January 2017, Green Lawn had seen more than a dozen incidents of vandalism, resulting in an estimated $1.25 million in total damages. The cemetery has never before experienced vandalism to this extent.


Hundreds of grave sites were in disrepair, and the cemetery’s small management staff didn’t have the time or the resources to address the damages, nonetheless document all of them.

That’s where the community comes in. Built in 1848, the cemetery is the final resting place of five former Ohio governors, five Medal of Honor recipients, author James Thurber, architect Frank Packard and other prominent figures. In the wake of the devastating damage, Randy Rogers says, the silver lining is the coming together of volunteers, students, community organizations and individual donors to save the cemetery and even assist in the criminal investigation.

From Class to the Cemetery

Rogers, a member of the cemetery’s volunteer board of trustees, oversees the grounds and historical preservation of Green Lawn. He retired after 28 years in the military and now spends most days at the cemetery.

As the board’s representative for the local birdwatching community—“the Lorax position,” he calls it—Rogers typically spends his time planning and implementing enhancements to the cemetery’s natural elements. He’s a couple years into a massive, seven-year-long tree-planting initiative. But lately, responding to the vandalism has consumed his time.


Credit Emily Thompson
Randy Rogers at Green Lawn Cemetery

“When the vandalism started happening, Randy would come home and be like, ‘They got this section or these monuments,’ ” says Rogers’ wife, Doreen Whitley Rogers. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we really need to map all this so you can wrap your head around it and figure out how to get these sites restored.’"

At the time, Whitley Rogers was managing geographic information system (GIS) work, or digital mapping, for the National Audubon Society (she recently started a new position as the assistant vice president of information management at United Way of Central Ohio). Because the Audubon classifies the cemetery as an “important bird area,” she’d previously helped provide the cemetery with mapping software and resources to properly document their trees. But mapping the vandalism damages would require a different solution.

Whitley Rogers had studied GIS at Columbus State Community College. So she met with a former instructor, and they put out a call for student volunteers to help at Green Lawn. They’d use GIS software through a mobile app, provided by the college. So in addition to giving back, it was a chance for students to learn the software through field work.

She would’ve been happy to get one volunteer, Whitley Rogers says, so she was thrilled when three students signed up. Soon after, Columbus State turned the volunteer project into a capstone course called GIS service learning, and Whitley Rogers became the instructor. The first course term was this spring, and the class will continue in the fall with a to-be-determined project for another client in need.

“They were very eager,” Rogers says of the students. “Right away they came down and started mapping the damage and wanted to help.”

Nicole Distelhorst, who was earning a GIS certificate at Columbus State, says the Green Lawn project piqued her interest because it was a different kind of opportunity to apply what she’d been learning in the classroom.

“I wanted to get more experience on the other side of the computer, and I wanted to be out in the field,” says Distelhorst, of Hilliard. “[The project] caught my eye, especially the damage itself. It just shows a really good way GIS can help people.”


Credit Emily Thompson
A gravesite damaged during the recent string of vandalism at Green Lawn Cemetery.

It’s a win-win, Whitley Rogers says. The students get great work experience, and Green Lawn gets volunteer consultants and the data they collect to structure and inform their restoration efforts.

“I would say it’s over $10,000 worth of consultant work that we’ve done at Green Lawn,” she says. “That’s including the time to collect the data, the value of the software, the analyzing of the data and then visualizing it.”

Whitley Rogers says the work has been rewarding for her and the students, too.

“It’s just been great,” she says. “All the students have said to me, you know, when I ask why they volunteered, ‘That’s somebody’s grandmother’s grave or could be a widow’s husband’s grave.’ So their hearts just went out to the families dealing with this.”

Playing Detective

The course entailed three main parts: data collection, analysis and presentation of the work and their findings. For about two months, Whitley Rogers and her students scoured the cemetery, documenting and mapping every gravesite that was damaged. In total, they found about 600 sites in disrepair.

Once the students documented the damages, they met with Green Lawn management.

“I actually train them on how to take on Green Lawn Cemetery as a client,” Whitley Rogers says.

Based on client needs, the students then used the data to do a cost analysis for repairs, and to provide information about criminal activity.


Credit Emily Thompson
A broken marker in a historic section of Green Lawn Cemetery.

Distelhorst focused on the criminal investigation analysis. She mapped the lines of movement of the vandal or vandals, piecing together clues for entrance and exit points, like bent fencing. She also collected additional data from security cameras. Then she looked for patterns.

She noticed that most often, the vandal or vandals entered Green Lawn off of Brown Road, which borders the west side of the cemetery.

“All along Brown Road, they don’t have any street lights,” Distelhorst says, adding other areas of the cemetery are well lit. “And that section of the cemetery is absolutely destroyed, unfortunately.”

She also noticed the most damage was done in historic sections.

“[The vandal] definitely ended up hitting more of the taller obelisks because the stones are older and easier to break,” she says.

Meanwhile, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is in the midst of an investigation into the vandalism that’s resulted in a suspect name.

“The type of damage and the pattern that they were doing pretty much had us convinced that it was the same one to three guys coming back and hitting us time and time again,” Rogers says. “Security got a look at them one night. So we had a couple partial descriptions, and we had some photos. And the sheriff’s office is currently investigating that name.


Credit Emily Thompson

“The thing about this sort of crime is that it’s very hard to prosecute,” he continues. “Because unless you actually have video of them knocking over the individual markers, it can be real hard to tie them back to the specific damage. But even just getting the name we feel is important because once we know who they are, we’ll get them to stop. You know, the sheriff will be watching them.”

Green Lawn has upped security measures in the meantime.

“Now, instead of just having periodic patrols, we have nighttime security in the cemetery,” Rogers says. “They’re great because they come out, and not only do they patrol the cemetery, but they stop and talk to people, they help people with directions, they work with people. So they’re kind of roving ambassadors.”

The Data Learning Curve

The data collection was a challenge in and of itself, Whitley Rogers says, because it’s “messy, real-world data.”

“The students are working with data that has not been cleaned up and massaged for a tutorial,” she says.

Distelhorst says one of the biggest challenges of the data collection was the unpredictable weather, especially in the winter when the markers were frozen to the ground. Some of the older markers are worn, making the names difficult to identify.

“A lot of them just end up saying ‘mother’ or ‘daughter’ or ‘father’ on it,” Distelhorst says.

Credit Doreen Whitley Rogers
Nicole Distelhorst and Randy Rogers examine a marker that was toppled over by a vandal at Green Lawn Cemetery.

Now that the damages have been recorded, they’ll be able to cross reference the maps with cemetery records to match up the names, identify descendants and start contacting families to inform them of the damages.

The final project for the course involves creating story maps to show the results of their work. The visual representations of the data and analysis are meant to show the scope and results of the project in a way that’s easy to ingest the information. The students present their Green Lawn story maps to a group of Central Ohio GIS industry professionals this week.

“Doing the story map is really interesting,” Distelhorst says. “During our classes for the certificate, we only ended up doing one story map. With this, there’s a little bit more wiggle room and it’s creative so we can show the information we want to. It doesn’t really feel like schoolwork. It’s actually something I want to do.”

Not only did the project solidify her interest in fieldwork, but Distelhorst says her Green Lawn experience helped her land her first career job. She started an entry-level position at a land surveying company in April.

“Because of the Green Lawn work I did, because of being out in the field, they were willing to give me a chance so I can start learning land surveying as well,” Distelhorst says of Stantec, her new employer.

Next Steps

“Unless [a lot or grave marker is] covered under their homeowner’s (insurance) policy, then it really becomes a cash, out-of-pocket situation,” Rogers says of repairing the damages. “And then that’s where it falls on us, the nonprofit side of the house, to try to raise money and establish priorities as to which ones are the most historically or artistically important and try to work on those first. But the damage that was done will never be completely healed.”

Some of the damages are an easy fix. They’ll just need to hire a crane operator to reset markers that’ve been knocked over—granted, the service still costs about $800.

Other repairs are much trickier. If a marker broke when the vandal or vandals pushed it over, that price tag jumps up to upwards of $5,000, depending on the size, material and extent of the damage.

Original, historical artwork also became victim to the vandalism, and some pieces were destroyed beyond repair. Ordering custom—and expensive—replicas is now the only option for restoring the art.

Credit Emily Thompson
The destroyed bust of 19th century Ohio Supreme Court Justice Gustavus Swan.

“For the vandalism restoration, we’ve raised about $10,000 so far—which is of course, compared to $1.25 million, it’s a drop in the bucket,” Rogers says, adding he wishes they could use that money on revitalization projects and regular maintenance instead. “But it is letting us do a couple of important restoration projects.”

Manpower and monetary donations have come from various sources—individuals who heard about the string of vandalism, families of people buried at the cemetery and different organizations, like the local Elks chapter and Temple Israel.

The restoration is still a work in progress, but for Rogers, it’s a worthy cause.

“We have 155,000 internments, and we look at that as 155,000 stories,” he says. “It’s an important part of our culture. People come out here to appreciate that history and to look at their family’s roots or their community’s roots. And artistically, I mean, it’s just a beautiful place. I want to see it preserved and live for another 168 years.”