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Nyack Sketch Log: Oak Hill Cemetery

by Bill Batson

NSL88_Oak Hill According To Luke_Featured art

In 1989, after five years as Superintendent, Andrew Thompson decided to retire. The Board of Oak Hill Cemetery placed an ad in the local paper, looking for a new Superintendent. Luke Conroy of Nyack answered that ad, and was appointed the Superintendent in the summer of 1989.

The Term of Luke

According to Luke , “cemeteries are for the living.” Conroy’s office was on the first floor of this house portrayed in this week’s sketch. From that space, Conroy  oversaw these hallowed grounds, often meeting with family members. In comforting families, Conroy found his true vocation. “I realized that I was there to help families work through their grief to seek wholeness,”says Conroy.

At that time, the cemetery was only interring about three burials a week according to Oak Hill Cemetery Board Chair Peter Wortendyke. The Cemetery had two full time employees, brothers Joe and Charlie White along with two part time employees.

In early 1994, Conroy recommended to the board that the cemetery could save a substantial amount of money by privatizing the digging of the graves as well as the landscaping of the cemetery. “We were able to save the cost of salaries, workers compensation and health insurance so we contracted with the Nugent Brothers to dig the graves and Grounds Care was hired to to take care of the landscaping,” said Wortendyke.

“However, Luke felt badly for Joe and Charlie White who were long time employees of the cemetery and contacted the Superintendent of St. Anthony’s Cemetery about hiring them. They were hired and worked a number of years for St. Anthony’s,” Wortendyke continued.

Luke stayed as the Superintendent at Oak Hill Cemetery until the summer of 2003, when he left Oak Hill to join the Nyack Water Department. But he would soon return to the cemetery in a different capacity. When he and his wife, Nancy and daughter, Anya joined St. Ann’s in the 1990s, Luke’s’ active participation as a layperson caught the attention of then Parish Priest Father Henry.

There was an ideal role for a person with Luke’s dedication to serve others in the Catholic Church called the Ministry of the Deacon. As a Deacon, Luke prepares the altar and gives the gospel reading. He can also perform baptisms, weddings and funeral rites. One morning, 14 years after he walked the grounds as caretaker, Luke conducted his first funeral service at Oak Hill.

Lou DeLuise Arrives

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In the fall of 2003, the Board of trustees hired Louis DeLuise as their new Superintendent. Lou arrived with an extensive knowledge of the building business having worked as a contractor for many years until he became the Superintendent. DeLuise is also an elite NCAA baseball umpire.

Under Lou’s watch, the Board of Trustees decided in 2008 that an expansion of Oak Hill was needed.

Oak Hill Cemetery
At a Glance

  • Located on Route 9W across from Nyack Hospital
  • Approximately 23,000 interred
  • 65 Acres with sweeping views of the Hudson River
  • Established in 1848
  • 25 headstones that predate the 1848 incorporation of Oak Hill are from Salisbury Point in South Nyack and were disintered because of flooding.
  • The oldest headstone is for Harmanus Tallman (1716-1790), the great nephew of the first European settler in this region, Dowe Harmensen Tallman.
  • Among the illustrious and fascinating in permanent residence at Oak Hill Include:
  • Helen Hayes and her husband, South Nyack native Charles MacArthur
  • General Daniel Ullman, credited with convincing President Abraham Lincoln to create a black regiment during the civil war to fight on behalf of the Union Army
  • Acclaimed painter Edward Hopper
  • And the person who is reported to receive the most visitors, author of the Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers.

At that time the finances were very limited and the Board asked the NYS Division of Cemeteries if Oak Hill could borrow funds from the Permanent Maintenance Fund. Permission was granted, and the land was then cleared on the north side of the cemetery.  Upon completion in 2011, approximately three thousand graves were added. 

In January of 2016, the Board decided to construct an outdoor columbarium. A committee was appointed to investigate the feasibility of such a project and met numerous times over the next few years, visiting cemeteries throughout the New York area to see what type of a columbarium would best suit our needs. 

“Every cemetery we visited, the Superintendents as well as the trustees advised us that rather than build a columbarium, we should seriously consider building a community mausoleum which would better suit the community’s needs,” DeLuise said.

The board eventually agreed, with some members feeling that the cost would be prohibitive. In the spring of 2017, the board voted to approve the construction of a community mausoleum at a cost of approximately two and a half million dollars.  Hopefully this construction project will be started in the not too distant future.

A Sister Cemetery Asks for Assistance 

In November, 2020, Mount Moor Cemetery reached out to the Oak Hill board for assistance in preserving the historic black burial ground in West Nyack.  Luke Conroy had helped with basic maintenance at Mount Moor during his tenure. Specifically, Mount Moor needed a a facility to receive and store replacement headstones for  Civil War Veterans provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and support in erecting the monuments.

Oak Hill went way above the call of duty. DeLuise recruited Travis Monuments and Grounds Care to contribute the equipment, materials and labor required.

Members of the board of Oak Hill, the owners of Travis Monument and Grounds Care and Superintendent DeLuise were honored guest on Memorial Day when the monuments were unveiled, giving the black Civil War Veterans the respect that they had been long denied.

Batson Joins The Board

In January 2021, I was invited to join the board of Oak Hill. I got to know Superintendent DeLuise and the board during my work as Vice President of Friends of Mount Moor.

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Two generations of Batson are interred at Oak Hill Cemetery. I am honored to have been asked to help keep vigil over their final resting place.

Read also:

Nyack Sketch Log: Korean War Hero and Ten Civil War Veterans receive Memorial Day Honors at Mount Moor

Mount Moor photo credit: Andrea B. Swenson

An activist, artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Nyack Sketch Log: Oak Hill Cemetery © 2021 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to see more.

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