Man spends more than 30 unpaid years tending to the dead at Miami Cemetery

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Stacks of dead trees, chainsawed into scores of individual pieces, litter North Miami Avenue like demented Lincoln Logs.

Inside the Miami Cemetery, the city’s oldest, the detritus of Hurricane Irma remains sprinkled over the graves of those killed in action from World War II to Vietnam, on the men and women who lived in this city when it was little more than swampland and around the children of those pioneers who died from long-curable diseases.

A few days after the storm did its worst, a man in a silver Nissan Xterra drove up to the municipal boneyard just south of Northeast 20th Street to find that its gates now sported two Master commercial locks. The key he had been given eight years ago after Hurricane Katrina only turned the dirty, timeworn lock, not its brand-new twin.

No explanation, no email or text was given, but Ronnie Hurwitz said the message was clear: Keep out.

But Miami officials say the area is simply too dangerous. Parks & Recreation Director Kevin Kirwin said the city’s priority after Irma was to get the streets clear.

“After that, the focus will be on the city’s parks, of which the cemetery is one,” he said, adding he is hoping to have the larger debris removed and reopen the area by the end of the month.

Still, Hurwitz said it feels personal.

Especially now: He is the driving force in having the unmarked grave of PFC Johnnie Little — a Homestead native who died in World War II — officially recognized and memorialized. The marker could be delivered any day.

“I’m supposed to sign for the headstone. I mean, I don’t know…” he said, his voice trailing off.

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Ronnie Hurwitz outside of the gate of the Miami Cemetery on Oct. 7, 2017.

DAN EVANS For the Miami Herald

Hurwitz is about five-foot-six and stocky, considers shorts and a Jeff Lebowski T-shirt the height of formality, and his frequent laugh is tinged with a Long Island accent that belies the fact he has lived in South Florida for four decades.

The 57-year-old has been the self-appointed and unpaid guardian and historian of the Miami Cemetery for, he says, more than 30 years. He comes four or five times each week to clean up and do general maintenance for the plots. He’s seen it all, from spookily toppled headstones to something he calls “the Voodoo tree,” a spot near the southwest corner that seems to be favored by practitioners of Santeria.

“I’ve seen so many opened chickens I could open a Kentucky Fried,” he said recently, pointing at spikes in the famed oak.

But it’s the graves of veterans to which Hurwitz, who has no military background, pays the most attention. He sweeps dirt from the engravings, removes fallen branches or whatever else needs to be done.

“The really clean ones are the ones that died in battle,” he said. “I would do them all, but I’m getting older.”

While he was preparing for Memorial Day this year, he found county records showing that Little — who died in battle near Cologne, Germany, in 1945 — had been buried without a marker. During the war, he said, it wasn’t uncommon for deceased servicemen to be buried in Europe, later exhumed and buried stateside. Little, he said, was probably not buried in Miami until 1948 or 49, though he doesn’t know why the grave remained unmarked.

Getting a proper memorial became a quest for Hurwitz, who worked with various historical societies, veterans’ groups and U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, to get the marker.

“It was heroic effort on his part,” Bob Jensen, a retired Navy commander, said of Hurwitz.

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Ronnie Hurwitz examines a photo of a woman discovered inside a tiny coffin at the Miami Cemetery on Oct. 7, 2017.

DAN EVANS For the Miami Herald

Jensen, president of both the Florida Pioneer Museum and the Historic Homestead Town Hall Museum, said initial plans included having a faux official headstone paid for by a local Rotary or Kiwanis club\, but “that was just not right.” A bona fide marker was the only thing that would do.

“The man gave his life for his country,” he said. “I believe he was just a teenager.”

The silent inhabitants of this 10-acre piece of land in this often-ignored part of Miami are the focus of Hurwitz’ life. He moved to Northeast 14th Street a few years ago specifically to be close to the cemetery. It’s the history of the place that attracts, he said.

Despite the frustrations of locked gates, dodging the occasional prostitute or dead-chicken offering, Hurwitz said he has numerous memories that make it all worthwhile. He remembers an African American he only knew as “Cornelius” who came by about a decade ago to visit buddies who had died in the Korean War.

“Boys,” Hurwitz remembered the man saying, “a black man just won the presidency. I just wanted you to know.”

“That’s why I do this.”

 

Miami Cemetery cleanup

Dade Heritage Trust, in partnership with the City of Miami Parks and Recreation Department is seeking volunteers for a post-hurricane cleanup day at Miami Cemetery from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday, Oct. 28, at 1800 NE Second Ave.

High school students can earn community service hours by participating. Tasks will include trash pickup, raking, clearing, planting and mowing. Volunteers are encouraged to bring garden tools such as rakes, clippers, weed wackers, water, sunscreen, hats and work gloves.

Volunteers can register at Eventbrite.com or contact Hannah Bernat of Miami Parks and Recreation at 305-416-1361 or hbernat@miamigov.com.

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