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A bell tower in the Anchorage cemetery would finish a story for Ernie Hall

Former Anchorage Assembly Chair Ernie Hall is leading the effort to build a bell tower at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

Walking through the cemetery in the sunshine, I recognized many names I knew, old friends who helped create Anchorage. And also the name of the man who was standing with me, Ernie Hall, who is still at it.

"We have a problem of the economy here because people aren't committed to the state. People are just passing through," Hall said. "I've got commitment. I've already got my name on a gravestone."

At 74, Hall seems as healthy and cheerful as ever. I had just received the warm, smiling greeting he is famous for. He radiates friendship and sincerity.

But Hall is on the home stretch of his lifelong marathon of community service. He asked me to visit the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery to learn about his project to build a bell tower there, which he said will be his last big volunteer effort.

In a town with a scratch-paper approach to history, the cemetery is a document of our attitudes and hopes. Even as monuments mark the past, there's still plenty of open grass for more graves and a sense that something is being built here.

A presidential executive order in the city's first year set aside the nine blocks between Sixth and Ninth avenues and Cordova and Fairbanks streets. The first person buried there was Francis Amestoy, who died when a tree fell on him while he was clearing the original Anchorage townsite in July 1915.

Setting aside 22 acres for graves must have seemed laughably optimistic when Anchorage was a dusty little town.

The city had briefly boomed as an Alaska Railroad construction camp but soon faded into a forgotten outpost. Residents built cheaply, knowing Anchorage could easily end up like other Alaska boomtowns that lived on only as names on the map.

Belief in the city's permanence only came with Cold War construction and the discovery of oil on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1950s. But the cemetery still seemed way too big. In 1951, its eastern third became a big public housing development called Willow Park.

Former Anchorage Assembly Chair Ernie Hall visits the grave of his late wife, Regina Hall, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. Hall is leading the effort to build a bell tower at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

In 1991, the city tore down that dreadful mess and fenced the cemetery for the first time. A few years later, John Bagoy began giving tours on summer solstice. You can still take that tour, which bears his name, although he died in 2005.

Bagoy was born in Anchorage in 1922. When his mother, Marie, died in 1982, he got involved in fixing up the cemetery. In a city with little sense of its history or future, the grounds had accumulated more than 2,000 unmarked graves.

Over years of work, Bagoy figured out who all those people were and put up markers. A city Cemetery Advisory Board formed, a master plan was written, a perpetual care trust fund was created — over a couple of decades, the cemetery became a showplace.

It also changed with Anchorage. Where Willow Park once stood, new congregations fenced plots, adding to the older tracts for Catholics and for fraternal organizations such as the Moose and Elks.

Walking in the gate, you pass two Jewish plots and then a plot for the Islamic Community Center of Anchorage, Alaska.

"Our community really comes together here," Hall said.

Which he didn't mean as dark humor, although he's not above smiling at the graveyard. We're all headed this direction eventually.

The bell tower is one of the last pieces of a plan for the cemetery adopted years ago. Hall was part of that work and has returned to finish it after a seven-year hiatus.

A stumpy flagpole stands in a weathered plaza near the center of the cemetery. The new project would mount taller flagpoles, install a better plaza with planters and seating, and erect a 40-foot tower with a carillon to chime the hours.

The work will cost $402,000, according to the Anchorage Park Foundation. Hall hopes to get half of that from the Rasmuson Foundation and has about $50,000 more committed or in hand.

A bell tower at the Anchorage Memorial Cemetery would take the place of an existing plaza. (Courtesy Anchorage Park Foundation)

He is the entire committee, but if anyone can raise the money, Hall can. His list of volunteer accomplishments and awards won't fit on a single page. It's simply amazing how much he has done.

Hall said a board once rejected him for membership because he had too much experience.

"They said, 'It appeared you're just a resume builder,' " he recalled. "I've never been on anything where I didn't give 100 percent."

Elvi Gray-Jackson, who served with Hall on the Anchorage Assembly, said he was a hard worker, warm and respectful, humble, and an effective chair from 2012 to 2014.

"We disagreed on a lot of things, but he was there for the right reasons," she said.

Walking around the cemetery, I tried to probe how Hall got this way — why he cares so much about volunteering and serving on boards.

No luck. He answered every question openly, but his explanation was just that he got caught up in his kids' school PTA and never stopped. Helping is just how he is made.

As for the cemetery and the bell tower, there's something deeper.

Hall and his first wife, Regina, ran a cabinetry business together for 43 years. They were never apart. When she rapidly died of cancer in 2009, Ernie had to sell the business.

"It was impossible to go back to that and pretend nothing had happened," he said.

He got elected to the Assembly the next year and served two terms. But his name and date of birth waited in the cemetery, etched on the stone next to Regina's.

Last year, Hall left the Assembly, thinking it was time to enjoy himself while he could. He and his second wife, Sandy, a retired teacher, have a place in Palm Springs.

Hall said he likes to drink a glass of wine in the evening and think of what he has accomplished for Anchorage. But he wants to finish this one last job before relaxing. A bell tower to ring over the graves in the cemetery.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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