Of Grave Concern

His hands cupped to the sides of his face to block out the late afternoon sun's glare, Paul George peers through the glass doors of a small mausoleum with the words "Somoza/Portocarrero" cut into the mottled marble just above his head. Inside, a four-foot-wide by eight-foot-long space. Mostly white marble. Very clean. Two vaults -- a husband's, a wife's -- whose exteriors denote the identity of the occupants, their birth dates, and death dates. Hers includes the names of their children. "There's room for one, two, three, four more," George notes, ticking off the number of available spaces. "But there's actually five kids!" he exclaims with a slight laugh. So much for the notion of room for one more.

Somoza. Right. Him. Former Nicaraguan "strongman" president Anastasio Somoza: Deposed by the Sandinistas in 1979, assassinated in Paraguay one year later, winding up, like so many of this area's famous and infamous, on and in the immaculately manicured grounds of Woodlawn Park Cemetery. Just across the way from the Somoza family tomb, the grave of Cuban American National Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa, who died this past November. The site is strewn with fresh flowers, including an arrangement in the shape of the Cuban flag and one of a bright red heart. Nearby lies the final resting place of former Cuban president Carlos Prio Socarras, ousted by Fulgencio Batista in 1952, relocated to Miami Beach, dead in 1977. A suicide, George points out.

The guy knows this place. In fact George, a Miami-Dade Community College associate professor in social science, knows it so well that he will lead a two-and-a-half-hour walking tour of Woodlawn Park this Sunday as part of a series presented by the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, where he holds the post of historian. "Cemeteries are marvelous history books," declares George, setting off in the direction of a simple monument that a local American Legion post has erected to honor the 116 servicemen who died when a hurricane swept through the keys on Labor Day 1935. "The winds were measured at more than 200 miles per hour," says George.

During the tour, which he last conducted in 1995, George riffs on the lives of the people buried at Woodlawn Park, from Miami pioneers such as Carl Fisher and William Brickell to local politicians like Miami Beach mayor Clarence Snedeker and Miami mayor William Wolfson Businessmen. Newspapermen. Judges. Architects. Soldiers. "It's almost like an index," he remarks. "You see a name and take off."

George first gave the Woodlawn Park tour in April 1994, cramming the previous night. "I picked up scrapbooks from the cemetery office the day before the tour," he remembers. "That night I read them like crazy and was just overwhelmed by the amount of familiar names."

Like Frow: "First white homesteaders in Coconut Grove." And E.L. Brady: "The grocer whose store caught on fire and started the great fire of '96." That would be 1896.

Established in 1913, when, George notes, the grounds were dotted with Dade County pines and lay "way outside the city limits," Woodlawn Park now covers 66 acres on the western edge of Little Havana. More than 67,000 bodies.

Standing in the middle of the cemetery is an immense cathedral-like mausoleum, which since its construction first began in the 1920s has grown incrementally with the addition of wings and chapels. "It's just so vast -- like a maze," George whispers inside, home now to Miami pioneers William and Mary Brickell and their daughter Maude, Florida governor David Sholtz, and Wolfson family scion Mitchell Wolfson.

Back outside George peels off a verbal laundry list of cemetery areas devoted to various ethnic and national persuasions: Greek section, Chinese section, Cuban section, Jewish section.

Not forgetting the Syrian-Lebanese section, next door to the Cubans. "I recognize some of these names," George says, explaining that he's of Assyrian descent. "Look, over here. George!" he calls out, catching sight of a tombstone that bears his surname. "No relation."

-- Michael Yockel

Walking tour of Woodlawn Park Cemetery takes place at 11:00 a.m., Sunday, March 22. Meet outside the cemetery's entrance, 3260 SW Eighth St. A complimentary brunch will be served before and after the tour. Tickets cost $10 for Historical Museum members, $15 for nonmembers. Call 375-1625.

 
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