The Grim Keeper

The sexton's post at the Miami City Cemetery is a burial ground for troublesome municipal employees. But Clyde Cates wasn't about to just roll over and die.

Of all the stories the Miami City Cemetery can tell, very few involve ghosts. Yes, it's the final resting place of some of Miami's most fabled founders, but civic matron Julia Tuttle is rarely seen rising from her grave. Dr. James Jackson, namesake of the hospital, makes no clandestine crypt calls. Early Miami mayors Rielly and Sewell keep their meetings eternally adjourned, while several members of the Burdine clan skip one Labor Day white sale after another. Oh, some swear a gravestone once moved in a way no human could have moved it, but that's an isolated spooking. For the most part, Tuttle and her pioneer pals sleep soundly through the long good night.

Which means the souls who trashed the cemetery on September 28 were probably all too human. Under cover of darkness, one or more people wantonly toppled dozens of the 10.5-acre Edgewater graveyard's historically precious markers. Some smaller tombstones were cracked in two. In the walled-off Jewish section, where the mayhem seemed most concentrated, the imposing headstone of Rebecca Shaff (1888-1952) fell forward, breaking a granite slab engraved with the word Mother.

Clyde Cates, the cemetery's city-employed sexton, discovered the damage the next day, Sunday, when he drove by to feed three homeless dogs. He assessed the damage and called the police. The final tally, recorded on the incident report: 57 gravestones assaulted. There are no suspects. "I don't know who did it," Cates says. "It must have been somebody who was fairly strong. There was a lot of anger vented to go through all that trouble, though I don't believe it was vented at me. I get along great with the people in that area."

Vandalism at the Miami City Cemetery -- or any other cemetery -- is not unheard of. "People are drawn to cemeteries, for whatever reasons," observes Perry Caudill, a marketing executive for ECI Corp., which manages the three city cemeteries in Fort Lauderdale. "You can't keep people out. If they want to get in, they will get in." And when people get in, they often want to wreak havoc. "Vandalism is routine," says Ed Libengood of the Loewen Group, parent company of six local cemeteries. "It happens. All cemeteries from time to time have an occasion like that, when somebody comes through just for the fun of it."

In its 99-and-a-half-year history, the Miami City Cemetery has been violated dozens of times. "Vandals upset headstones on city cemetery graves," reads a Miami Herald headline from 1939; several overturned gravestones were "damaged badly." In one strange incident in 1970, a pack of monkeys swung through the place. That same year then-sexton Felix Cornejo reported regular findings of voodoo dolls with pins stuck in their limbs and "nine pennies" (which are actually nine dimes stacked together in a symbolic way). He put the coins in his pocket.

"I tell Clyde, 'Listen: Whatever you are going through has happened before,'" says Miami Parks Coordinator Robert Frazier, Cates's supervisor and a former cemetery sexton. "I mean, people coming in and practicing voodoo? You find the pennies. You find the quarters. Sometimes you may find a dollar bill. Hell, when I first got there, we found nineteen dollars," Frazier recalls. "Of course you know that was lunch!"

What was unusual about the September incident was the way it captured the attention of the media. Not only did the Herald report the crime, but all the local TV stations did too. The Sun-Sentinel followed up; later so did an Associated Press reporter looking for a Halloween feature.

In most of the stories, the vandalism rode shotgun to Clyde Cates, who grabbed the spotlight to complain that the graveyard is a victim of neglect at the hands of city administrators. "They don't care about the cemetery," Cates told the Herald. "This is an exile spot." If they wanted the place run the way it should be, he declared, he'd need more money, equipment, and staff.

His high-profile sniping struck a chord. Community activists scurried to the cemetery's aid. A private cemetery management company donated manpower to restore the toppled gravestones, and city administrators finally moved to spend a $250,000 grant they'd received from the state a year ago, specifically awarded for the repair of damaged gravestones and other cemetery improvements.

"Vandalism has happened so many other times, but this time it piqued an awful lot of interest and a lot of outrage," says Paul George, a historian who'd conducted one of his popular walking tours through the cemetery only a day before the vandals struck. "In a way, that vandalism was the best thing that could have ever happened to this cemetery."

"Oh yeah, hi," says Cates, not at all surprised that another reporter has stopped by for a visit. "I'm just trying to get this map in order here."

With his sinewy left forearm anchoring one side of a blueprint to his cluttered desk, he presses his right palm to the other edge. The top and bottom sides curl inward, forcing him to rock his head and midsection forward until he has the document pinned to the desk the way a wrestler might subdue an opponent. Realizing that he can't possibly read the blueprint in this position, Cates sits back and folds it up. "This is a listing of all the trees," he explains. "I guess it's from the Forties or Fifties, so most of the trees are gone now. But what I'd like to do is find out what trees are left and get name tags on them. A big giant African mahogany tree we have up in the front is so gorgeous. We have a hernandia sonora in here that most people probably have not heard about. That's what the sexton should really be working with -- getting that stuff organized in a professional manner instead of just mowing."

He tosses the blueprint onto a bookshelf, one more archive in the museum that is his office. In a space no wider than two coffins and only about as long, Cates stores all the tools he needs to maintain the graveyard, from a stapler and a bucksaw to a time clock and a water fountain. Also squeezed in are dozens of magazines and paperbacks. Smithsonian, The Mighty Aztecs, The Joy of Snorkeling, A Guide to Cacti, The American Legion Magazine, Arts of Asia, Complete Health and Maintenance Guide for Dogs, The Oregon Trail. Any remaining shelf space is filled with the bric-a-brac he accumulates on his daily trips to a nearby resale shop: candles, vases, a porcelain figurine of the Virgin Mary, a kid-size Rawlings catcher's mitt, a bumper sticker declaration of love for Jesus, and much more. The walls are covered with calendars and selected pieces from his personal art collection. "I love the old Spanish Catholicism, especially in art," he says. "I love it. I've got a Spanish dancer with most of her face covered by her hands that is very Catholic. It's unusual and interesting. I like it."

He offers a hand, first wiping it on the front of a City of Miami polo shirt that he has matched with faded Levi's and a pair of Dr. Martens boots the color of green M&Ms (acquired earlier this day at the thrift shop; only three dollars). At age 44, Cates has the strong, healthy look of a baseball player in the last days of a long career. Blue eyes peer from behind tinted prescription glasses. Thinning hair the color of yellow squash is covered by a City of Miami baseball cap with two pins stuck to the brim. One pin commemorates his twentieth anniversary with the city. The other commemorates his twenty-fifth.

Cates was seventeen in the summer of '69, when a friend told him the city was hiring laborers for $1.97 an hour. Preferring outdoor work to schoolbooks, he chose to stay on full-time. His application for work, still on file at the city, is so dated that his phone number begins with a two-letter prefix: MO7-0975. He had to sign a piece of paper stating that he is not a communist, and because he was so young he couldn't drive a city car for four years after he was hired. When asked to list any foreign languages he spoke, wrote, and read fluently, he put "English."

By 1986 he was the supervisor of Virginia Key beach, where, by all accounts, he was an industrious employee. "He was the hardest worker I have ever seen," recalls Robert Hubsch, head lifeguard at Virginia Key during Cates's tenure and now head lifeguard at the Venetian Pool. Cates did have a reputation for eccentricity, however. On breaks he'd practice his hobby -- knife throwing. He also adopted a pair of homeless kittens, feeding them at first with an eyedropper.

The cats, apparently, led to his departure from Virginia Key. "His working ability there was never questioned," says a city official who didn't want his name published, "but he took a real liking to the cats. It came down to where he became obsessive over the cats, so they removed him."

That was in 1992. Cates landed on a city truck that sprayed weed- and ant-killing chemicals in city parks. Bothered by the way the chemicals often spilled carelessly from the truck, he says, he obtained a note from his doctor saying he was allergic to the substance. A transfer to Watson Island didn't work out either; Cates claimed his supervisor placed impossible demands on him and his assistant. Supervisors alleged that he was faking migraines. He went to a therapist who diagnosed a "stress-related syndrome."

And so it was that he was sent to the cemetery.
"I'm not here because I have any great professional skills. I'm here because they don't want me anywhere else, basically," he opines. "Out of sight, out of mind. The cemetery is a graveyard for employees too."

Maybe he's just paranoid. Maybe not. In 1993 a veteran city worker named Gerardo Lopez-Morales nearly died after he heard he'd been transferred from the city's marina to a new assignment as a security guard at the cemetery, on the midnight shift. As he warily edged his automobile closer to the intersection of NE Second Avenue and Eighteenth Street for a look at his new post, the frightened senior citizen suffered a stroke. Officially, city administrators said "changing staff needs" forced the transfer. But Lopez-Morales claimed there were more mysterious motivations. He had no experience as a security guard, had no prior work-related problems, and always received satisfactory performance evaluations. But he was a friend of Miriam Alonso, and when Alonso lost the 1993 Miami mayoral election to Steve Clark, Lopez-Morales lost the marina job he'd held for a decade. He filed a lawsuit last year alleging discrimination on the basis of his political beliefs or ties. The suit is pending.

Unlike Lopez-Morales, Cates accepted his new post -- with a caveat. "I told them: 'I don't mind being here as long as you don't sabotage it -- if you don't support it, I will get vocal about this,'" he says.

There are some 8000 gravesites in Miami City Cemetery, most of them already filled, and some filled a few times over: Unless a body has been buried in a concrete-lined grave, the plot can be refilled every ten years. Because it is a municipal cemetery, the cost of burial is significantly lower than at a private operation, and there are no restrictions on who can be buried there. In addition to the Burdines and the Tuttles, there are Confederate soldiers, the city's first doctor, the first black judge in the South, and most of Miami's first Jews.

Never mind resting in peace -- in spite of their potential interest to historians, these people's remains have never reposed in anything approaching luxury. When the city bought the land in 1897, some complained it was too far from downtown. Others whined that it was in a seedy saloon district. After only twenty years, the graveyard was already a rundown afterthought. "We say that we are ashamed, deeply ashamed of the neglect and the carelessness that has been evinced in the city's care of that place where so many of its loved ones have been laid for their eternal sleep," reads a 1913 editorial from the daily Miami Metropolis.

Neglected describes the way the cemetery still appears. Some of the tombstones tilt at severe angles into the ground, pushed sideways by gravity, tree roots, or strong winds. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew knocked over several mature trees, damaging many graves. Careless scrapes from mowers and tractors have nicked the edges of many monuments, cracked the slate foundations of tens of others.

Although the grounds are publicly run, the graves themselves are privately owned, which conflicts with Cates's desire to repair some of the most damaged stones. "It's the family's responsibility," explains Robert Frazier, the parks coordinator. "The city doesn't have the time or the resources to fix up every grave even if we wanted to." Cates performs first aid on some of the more prominent graves anyway. Last winter he applied a mocha-color coat of primer to the weathered concrete mausoleum of Edward and Gussie Douglas. Sealer would have been better, followed by paint, but he didn't have the money to affix more than a Band-Aid. Two of the markers on the mausoleum were missing, either destroyed in the hurricane or taken by hooligans, so Cates wedged in some scrap plywood with Ed's and Gussie's names stenciled on it. "It's Mickey Mouse but it's all we got," he allows. "If I had left it alone, it would have still looked black and trashy, with the names missing."

In a Miami Herald column that ran soon after the September vandalism, former Miami News editor Howard Kleinberg reported that the cemetery's burial records are incomplete and inaccurate. "Two concrete-lined graves containing caskets were found recently where no one was supposed to be buried; the occupants are unknown," Kleinberg wrote. "Also...when attendants dug into the site of one grave that was recorded as filled in 1985, no casket was found." Cates confirms Kleinberg's charges -- in fact, he was Kleinberg's source of information for the piece. He argues that under the present management system, he has neither the resources nor the time to solve such major problems. "What I would prefer working on is straightening out the headstones and lining the whole area up right," he says. "I need more time to fix stuff like that. I need equipment to move that stuff around. I also need time to go over the records. They have me doing the weed-eating when I should be working on the research."

Alex Korsekoff knows of what Cates speaks. He ran the cemetery for about 40 years, until 1962, during which time he is credited for changing it from a barren tract of land into an arboretum with 200 different varieties of trees and exotic plants. The African red mahogany, the cassia, the Jerusalem thorn, and more were planted during his tenure. Korsekoff, too, fought with his bosses about the definition of his duties. He wasn't a mere laborer, he argued, as much as he was a Renaissance man who wielded a variety of skills.

Cates reaches for his predecessor's personal log, a musty old book resting on the corner of his desk. "'The sexton of Miami City Cemetery is 'groundskeeper' only in addition to his other proper and more important duties,'" he recites from a 1942 Korsekoff memo. "'The sexton should be intelligent enough to be a little bit of a lawyer, of a surveyor, of a psychologist in dealing with people bereaved and distraught by the loss of their dearest ones. He must be a man of integrity and character, and of proven honesty'" -- here Cates puts a pencil check next to the word honesty -- "'for he deals with people's property and money and may dispense favors for personal gain.'"

Korsekoff is the exemplar Cates tries to emulate. He studies the logs for insight into how the old sexton stretched his budget during wartime rationing. He marvels at the details about the trees, and at the odd facts, like how Korsekoff once controlled the city's 800-pound supply of dynamite (the sexton no longer has that responsibility). "He had a real problem fighting for some respect for this place," Cates reflects. "He talks about shedding tears over trying to get this place straightened out, and the politics involved in it. But compared to today, he was getting great support. I mean, today we are getting nothing. I am on my own."

Despite the lack of support, Cates regularly receives letters from families who appreciate the way he maintains the grounds. Rosemary Carufel of Tampa sent him a handwritten note of thanks "for not forgetting me." When Virginia Pinder of Punta Gorda asked for a copy of her family's burial records, Cates attached a few Polaroids of the family plot. "We appreciate the time and effort you spent on gathering all the records and copies," she wrote back. "The current photos are special to us."

"I took those myself, with my own money, because I knew they may never have seen where their relatives are buried," Cates explains. "It doesn't take much extra effort to try to make people happy."

According to Paul George, any extra effort at all is unusual for a city sexton. "I see that job as kind of like McDonald's," says the Miami-Dade Community College professor. "The people who work there don't have a stake in it. It is just another one of their city duties. It is not that they, or their performances, are horrendous. It's more like they are overwhelmed with a lot of responsibilities and a lack of help. Cates goes well beyond that. He is very much the exception. I get the sense that he has had a lot of pride in doing things that no other city people have done for us."

Laur'rio Ahmad Walden concurs. The 48-year-old postal worker makes regular trips to the cemetery to visit the grave of his brother, a Vietnam War casualty who was buried there in 1968, and he has noticed an improvement in the way the grounds are maintained since Cates took over. "Clyde cares about the cemetery," Walden says. "He cleans back the grass to where you can actually read the names on the gravestones. He fights with the city single-handedly for more man-hours to operate. Clyde is definitely in my corner. I am in his corner, too. He is working in the best interests of the city."

When he talks to his bosses, Cates argues for a full-time assistant. He wants to be allowed to fix the gravestones. He needs more paint and more weed-whacker line. Constantly, he says, he is rebuffed. "You can talk to them all night long but it's not going to help," he grumbles. "They just don't get it. They intentionally don't want to get it, in my opinion."

Cates blames the problem on the administration of Cesar Odio, the long-time city manager who resigned three months ago amid federal corruption charges. Odio is gone, but the people he appointed are still in charge, Cates gripes. "People said, 'When the Cubans become the majority, watch out, because there will be a lot of changes, negative changes.' I had always heard about Cuba and the fight for democracy and freedom. I was naive. I thought with the freedom fighters and the Bay of Pigs and all this that what we were going to see would be fair and equal. And it was really a shock when people started coming in that were related to [a city employee] and taking a job that you earned."

He can't substantiate his charges of nepotism, but he can criticize what he sees as cronyism. Wally Lee, the assistant city manager who oversees Cates's department, worked at Odio's old company, Maule Industries. Beneath Lee is Alex Martinez, another Maule alumnus who also worked with Odio at the Des Rocher Sand Corp. Beneath Martinez is Raul Garcia, a Martinez ally. These people, Cates says, hold the sort of high-ranking positions he should hold.

"Clyde complains about Latins taking over, that he doesn't like it. But that's the way it goes," counters his supervisor Robert Frazier. "I agree with him on some points. Like since Cesar Odio took over, nobody really got the promotions they should have. But that went across racial lines. Like Clyde, I think it should go by seniority. But while that is his main beef, he didn't mention that back in the early Seventies he had a chance to move up but he gave up the opportunity. He refused the position." (Cates admits this is true.)

Another city official, who asked not to be named, is more blunt. "Clyde has been passed over [for promotions] because he would get in the interview portion and call [his supervisors] assholes. He would say, 'I should have been running this place a long time ago.' That is how he approached them. Clyde Cates is the most prejudiced person in the world. You know that, don't you?"

Cates insists he isn't prejudiced. His ex-wife was Cuban. His current girlfriend is Haitian. "It's not racism," he asserts. "I didn't start this stuff against them, you know. But the higher city administration is all Cuban. I am talking superintendent, administration, and stuff. It was all these select Cubans. None of what I have done is against the Cuban people themselves. It is against a small bunch of Cubans brought in by Cesar Odio who managed to run this city into the ground."

Several years ago Cates discussed his frustrations with a therapist. "I saw him six or seven times," Cates recalls. "He told me he felt I was in the wrong line of work. He said my job doesn't offer me enough creative outlets. In our last meeting, we were talking about the old saying that you can't fight city hall. He asked me what keeps me from saying it's so much of a fight that I'm probably not going to win. I told him I haven't used my last option yet: going outside the city to create honest bad publicity. That is the last option. If that didn't work, then I'd walk away. That ended our meeting. That was the last time he wanted to see me."

Perhaps appropriately, Cates's "bad publicity" campaign took the form of a haunting of sorts. It began locally, with late-night phone messages left on the answering machines of his superiors. Typically he criticized Odio, saying that Cubans are ruining the city. Graduating to a fax machine ("a much more productive tool"), he began sending cryptic and critical messages to reporters and politicians around the world. His last fax, sent maybe a year ago: "Cesar Odio? Parasitic infestations to follow."

Cates's personnel file contains no record of the phone calls or faxes. "They gave him a lot of latitude as long as he wasn't harming anyone," explains a senior administrator who asked for anonymity. "He was a hard worker, but he tells stories that aren't the truth. He refuses to listen to the truth that help [for the cemetery] is on the way, and he goes out of his way to make it look worse than it is. In truth, the cemetery looked pretty good before the vandalism. All that needed to be done is have the graves fixed up from the hurricane, and that process was already in motion. And Clyde knows it."

On September 10, Cates filed a discrimination complaint with the Metro-Dade Equal Opportunity Board, alleging that the city had passed him over for a promotion -- and its inherent five percent raise of his $43,400 annual salary -- because he is white.

"I am a Caucasian American and work as a Park Manager I for the above-named governmental entity," he wrote in the complaint. "Last year Hispanic and Black American employees working in the same job classification were promoted to acting Park Manager II positions. Around June 1, 1996, I learned they were given a five percent pay increase associated with their promotion. I have greater seniority than those given the acting positions. I have complained of the disparate treatment and have been retaliated against with lower performance appraisals and threats of discharge."

Further down he added, "Terrence E. Griffin, Assistant Director, told me we needed ethnically correct people in the parks."

Cates's case was transferred to the city's Equal Opportunity department, where it is under review. Griffin says he is not allowed to comment while an investigation is in progress. But in Cates's last performance evaluation, in January, Griffin wrote, "Clyde is doing a good job at the City Cemetery and is trying to involve himself in all aspects of the cemetery operations and functions. Clyde should not interpret every job obstacle as a personal attack upon himself or as some type of personal vendetta against him."

The vandals struck two weeks after Cates filed his complaint. One of the first calls he made after discovering the damage was to Paul George; he knew George would call in the press. "He did call me, and I was so upset that I immediately called the Herald," the historian recalls. "Maybe he calls me in part because of that. I am real naive about that. That could have been savvy."

When an Associated Press reporter came calling on October 30 to write a Halloween feature that followed up on the September vandalism, Cates announced that he had found three dead chickens, the head of a slaughtered baby goat, and some human feces. The carcasses were still there the next day when TV trucks were dispatched to the scene after the AP story hit the wires. While the cameras rolled, Cates picked up the goat head with a pitchfork.

Parks Coordinator Robert Frazier arrived at the cemetery that morning to a barrage of TV microphones, and he did not like what he saw. "After close observation of the waste left on headstones it was clear to me that it was the same waste and voodoo that was there from the day before," he wrote to Cates in a "Letter of Warning" dated November 4. "It was approximately 10:30 in the morning when I arrived at the cemetery, so that means that you had at least three hours to clean up any problems that existed. Instead you left it there so the media could see it for your own personal reasons." Frazier concluded that "this type of negligent attitude" would not be tolerated in the future.

"In my opinion, if you want people to pay attention to the cemetery, do the job," Frazier elaborates. "I hate to see someone go in and use the cemetery as a scapegoat to bring up things they really just want to voice."

The undue attention on the vandalism has so annoyed Frazier that he now even questions the extent of the destruction in the first place. "I took Clyde's word that there were 57 damaged graves. I didn't see 57 myself. I saw the damage, but you know what? I can't even say there were 57."

Though he credits Cates for being a good worker, he says the sexton is approaching his problems the wrong way. "When I had problems with management, I solved them through negotiations," the supervisor notes. "I didn't go and try to destroy the cemetery and try to make up things about how the cemetery is being run. There are procedures Clyde should follow that don't include using the cemetery as a stepping stone for his personal agenda. You just don't do that."

Counters Cates: "I told them before, to me it is just a matter of compensating. You treat the area where I am at and me like dirt, then I am going to compensate. By compensating, it kind of equalizes the situation where they are not getting away with leaning on me without paying some kind of price."

His yen to equalize matters is so strong that he stays on a job he could retire from at any time. Cates has logged enough years to have earned a $35,000 annual pension. Not enough to make him rich, he concedes, but not bad for a 44-year-old who dreams of kayak trips in the Amazon. He says a union official recently encouraged him to quit rather than jeopardize the pension with his activism. He would have none of that.

Certainly, though, there is something attractive about just getting out, taking the money and leaving the problems behind. Sitting at his desk and contemplating the idea of retirement, Cates grows silent for the first time in an interview that has lasted nearly two hours. His shift ended long ago and he should be getting on home; two cats -- the vagabonds from Virginia Key -- are waiting for him in his South Miami apartment. He tosses some paperbacks into a box, replaces Korsekoff's log in a file cabinet.

"When the city offered early retirement last year, a lot of employees vowed to address the problems of the administration from outside," he reflects. "My response to them was that you are more effective working inside the city, especially if you stick your neck out and speak up."

As far as that goes, he points out, the vandalism has been a good thing. "I think it was right in as far as it focused attention on the cemetery and its problems. I plan to bury my dad in here, so I want this place to be in great shape," he says, gazing out at the darkening grounds.

"It has been a good thing for me," Cates adds. "It has opened up doors, yes. But it remains to be seen how the epitaph will be written.

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