Immigrants: They Get the Job Done. Not just a political view expressed by some but this year’s theme for the Tale of the Tombstones, the annual cemetery walk put on by The Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest, taking place this Sunday, Oct. 22.
With stories of an Italian seamstress-turned-fashion designer to a German man who served on the side of the U.S. during World War I, actors in period costumes bring the dead back to life as tour groups make their way through Forest Home Cemetery. The Forest Park graveyard, more than 140 years old, was non-sectarian long before it became fashionable.
“It is very diverse and has people from all walks of life,” said Frank Lipo, executive director of the Oak Park River Forest Museum and the Historical Society. “It is also a naturally beautiful place with all the trees in the fall.”
The annual event is put on by 50 volunteers, one of whom has worked on the cemetery walk for 23 of the 26 years it has been held — Doug Deuchler, as researcher, scriptwriter and actor. This year, he is playing Jonas Shimkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who came through Ellis Island in New York in the early 1900s and worked in the Chicago meat-packing industry.
“In researching this, you realize women and minorities had so few choices,” Deuchler said. “They weren’t taking jobs from Americans. These were jobs no one would want. And you hear this today, 112 years later.”
Another volunteer on the walk is Lee Conte, who has made her period outfit each year for the 10 years she appeared in the cemetery walk. This year she’s taking on the role of Leila Moss Martin, a resident of Austin who founded Gads Hill Social Settlement in 1898 in the Pilsen neighborhood to serve Czech, German and other European immigrants. It is still in operation today, serving Latino families and their children in Pilsen and has grown to also operate centers in the North Lawndale, Brighton Park and Chicago Lawn neighborhoods of Chicago.
Typically 300 to 350 people attend the walk, although as many as 600 have shown up. Deuchler hopes the walk ignites interest in history.
“I hope sparks are lit in their historical minds,” he said. “And for kids who may think history just comes from a book, it makes it more immediate for them. People are genuinely fascinated. In writing the scripts, you make people come alive.”
Historical Society Board Member Peggy Tuck Sinko is a scriptwriter and tour guide for the walk.
“It’s all true; we don’t make things up,” Tuck Sinko said. “On the walk, people may start asking questions of the actor. Or you may have your audience in tears. Then you know you’ve really connected with them.”
Things are so real in fact, some descendants come to see their family stories told.
“One year, I was playing a murderer and one woman stayed behind,” Deuchler recalled. “I said, ‘You’re missing your tour.’ But she said, ‘I’d like to hear it again. He was my great-grandfather.'”
Tuck Sinko believes this year’s cemetery walk will help people think about immigration as it shaped our country throughout history.
“We’re not trying to tell how to think about things, but just show there are these parallels between what’s happening today and what’s happened in the past,” she said. “We also have amazing history right here in our own backyard. You don’t have to go to Washington D.C. or New York. These are just regular folks for the most part, but they have compelling stories to tell.”
Tale of the Tombstones takes place Sunday, Oct. 22, is 90 minutes to two hours long and is recommended for late-elementary school age and older. Participants remain on their feet the entire time. $15; $10 Historical Society members. Tickets: oprfhistory.org, 708-848-6755, or at Forest Home Cemetery on the day of the walk, starting at 12:30 p.m. First tour at 1 p.m., last tour departs at 2 at 863 Desplaines, Forest Park. Rain date is Sunday, Oct. 29.