- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 25, 2014

MONTICELLO, Ill. (AP) - There can’t be many places where you find Lawrence of Arabia lodging close by Jackie Robinson while the baseball legend himself could barely swing a bat without bumping into tragic Marie Kelly, the last victim of the Victorian serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.

Their landlord, retired junior high history teacher Ron Nolte, is a man of eclectic, intellectual tastes. He is more than happy to give them all room in space he claimed from the garage attached to the Nolte home in Monticello.

There, in neatly stacked piles and sometimes displayed on the wall, lie the last impressions of the famous, the infamous, the funny and the tragic and the sad. Nolte is a self-confessed “taphophile,” defined as a “tombstone tourist” or “cemetery enthusiast.” The teacher particularly digs the art of taking rubbings of the epitaphs and pithy final comments found on gravestones and monuments. He transfers the text to paper by means of rubbing them with a fat wax crayon made for the purpose and shaped like a hockey puck.

Nolte has traveled to “dead” places in Europe and all over the “deceased” United States to collect his monumental impressions. Trusted friends have stepped up to the plate, or rather monument, to do rubbings for him, too, when they have found themselves in the vicinity of interesting graves.

The 81-year-old taphopile, who only retired from the teaching of history and not the love of it, says all stages of the human condition seek to speak to us from beyond the grave, if only we take the time to stop and stare. “Interesting epitaphs just attract me,” he explains.

Some of the most famous who were among us don’t need to say much after they’re gone. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson’s grave in Brooklyn, N.Y., says: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” What other thought does the man who shattered baseball’s color bar need to leave us with?

Francis Albert Sinatra’s grave in Cathedral City, Calif., records the relevant dates (1915 to 1988) and leaves us with all we need to know: “The best is yet to come,” are his last words written in marble. Lawrence of Arabia, aka T.E. Lawrence, created legend worthy of a movie uniting World War I-era Arabs against the then-Turkish empire. But the visionary soldier and scholar who risked everything in war was destined to die in a motorcycle accident in peacetime England in 1935.

Lawrence’s grave comment on his headstone in St. Nicholas Churchyard in Dorset looks not to the sands of Arabia but the sands of time, and the hope that they would soon run out and then not matter anymore: “The hour is coming & now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God and they that hear shall live.”

No such grand statements for Marie Jeanette Kelly, an impoverished prostitute working the back alleys of foggy London when the Ripper cut her to pieces in 1888, the same year Lawrence was born. She got a modest grave marker bequeathed on poor souls with no money to pay for anything better: the rubbing of her mortality reveals, “Marie Jeanette Kelly, aged 25”, and the fact she was “Murdered Friday, Nov. 9, 1888.”

“She was the last of the Jack the Ripper’s five victims,” says Nolte, his ever-ready smile fading. “They were all horrific killings.”

And while sudden, brutal death is always tragic, it’s hard not to smile at the fate of some people who seem to have been too daft to have ever had a decent shot at a long life. Nolte, who has a bone-dry but ever-flowing sense of humor, points to the rubbing of a metal plaque beside the grave of Kenney farmer Matthias Myers, 41, which says he ran out of luck in 1899 when he decided to thaw out some frozen dynamite by holding the sticks over a bonfire.

Nolte notes that the Darwin Awards, a 20th-century invention to posthumously honor those who “protect the gene pool” by taking themselves out of it, wasn’t around when Myers got exploded. “But he sure qualified for a Darwin,” he adds, his smile back.

Chris Cravens, the sexton of the Monticello Township cemeteries, says it’s hard to forget stories such as the Myers detonation. He has known Nolte since the days when he sat in his classroom learning history and says it’s no surprise the man’s fascination with the past would turn him into a grave hunter.

“Sometimes he researches where to go and sometimes I think he just freestyles, wandering into a cemetery and stumbling on something interesting,” Cravens says. “And his knowledge of U.S. history is just unreal: he could talk forever and ever.”

Nolte does like to talk about what he’s found, but disciplines himself to be gravely interesting but brief, even though he has a 30-year collection featuring 1,750 grave rubbings from which to mine material. He offers up a little program called “Tombstone Tales,” which he presents to groups and says sometimes it’s not so much the tombstones but the stories buried inside that are the most interesting.

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