IMPERIAL — Gary Wyatt didn’t set out to be a hero for those in the Memorial Gardens Cemetery community. In his eyes, he saw a need, and did his part to contribute.
The former pastor turned politician, who served on the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, is currently the Director of Intergovernmental Relations for the Imperial County. He believes in helping those in need, without expecting anything in return. For Wyatt, this commitment has manifested itself in a downtrodden cemetery and memorial park.
His intention was simply to help, not to make a cause or campaign out of a neglected cemetery; yet, Wyatt has become its unofficial spokesperson, with extensive knowledge on the history and people buried in the place.
Wyatt’s story with Memorial Gardens Cemetery began during his tenure on the Board of Supervisors, where he became acquainted with Linda Cook, an advocate for the cemetery for years. She personally has relatives buried there, and when the cemetery began to fall into disrepair, took action on their behalf.
The cemetery is owned by Pistol River Properties, a company based out of Delaware that owns many successful cemeteries across the country. For unknown reasons, they have let this one fall into disrepair, to the point that no grass is growing, the irrigation system is broken, and plots have sunken. The million-dollar endowment fund disappeared over the years, leaving rumors swirling that the money was not managed with the best interest of the cemetery or community in mind.
For a period, Pistol River Properties was unwilling to sell, while at the same time unwilling to manage the upkeep of the property. The plot is now for sale, but the work and financing needed to turn the cemetery around is a “daunting task,” with “everything stacked against it,” Wyatt commented.
After completing his term on the Board of Supervisors, Wyatt decided to help out as a private, concerned citizen. Twice a month, Wyatt heads to his local Walmart and purchases around 15 to 20 cordless solar lights out of his personal paycheck. From there, he proceeds down to the cemetery and sets the lights around the graves. His goal is that each burial site, marked or unmarked, will have a light illuminating it in the evening. This is his way to honor those deceased.
This has become a family affair, as his wife frequently helps him purchase and set up the lights, along with his grandchildren. Wyatt sees this a teaching opportunity, a way for his grandkids, ages four and six, to learn the cycle of life, and respect and learn from those who have passed on. The kids are mindful of this, and follow a ritual of scraping off any dirt on the grave marker, and paying respect to the person buried there before putting the light in. Wyatt wants his grandchildren to learn to give to others for the right reasons.
A tall, imposing man by nature, he gives quite a different impression dressed in navy shorts, a tan shirt, and straw hat, bending on one knee to assist his grandchildren in grooming the cemetery. Wyatt also maintains the area by chopping weeds, cutting down dead trees, and bagging and cleaning up trash and brush around the edges. The property sits unfenced and unsecure, and for Wyatt, serves as a constant reminder of what used to be, and what should be.
There are over 900 locals buried there, many of whom are veterans. Perhaps, the most celebrated being Brenda Sue Sayers, the murdered little girl made famous by local author, Glenn Crowson.
To see the cemetery during the day is a sad sight, says Wyatt, but he enjoys the sight in the evening. Memorial Gardens at night has a haunting, ethereal appeal that Wyatt comments as being “pretty in its starkness.” In contrast, during the day it is often overlooked as just another piece of land. To Cook and the families of those buried in the cemetery, it holds precious memories; to Wyatt, it holds meaning – a measurement of society.
“I believe a society is measured by several things,” Wyatt stated, “by how it treats its old, young, its animals, and the deceased.” He is convicted that as a society we must help those who can’t help themselves. He reminds us that there are societies that don’t value those things. “We should,” he stated.
After weighing all the possibilities, and having a true comprehension of the legalities involved in managing a cemetery, Wyatt has concluded that the best course of action would be to turn the land into a veteran’s plot, allowing veterans to be buried there for free. There is interest in this idea, he stated, but the problem lies in funding. He believes it would be marvelous if someone provided the endowment. Ultimately, he believes that change for the cemetery is “going to happen because private citizens did whatever they could.”