Power Players: Bringing History To Life

When Suzanne Doonan, managing director of the Historic Riverside Cemetery Conservancy, looks outside her office, she sees and senses peace. “There’s nothing spooky about this place to me,” says Doonan. “I have a sense that the spirits here are completely serene, benign. I feel welcome.”

And why wouldn’t she? Riverside Cemetery, located in Macon on the banks of the Ocmulgee River, was constructed and landscaped to evoke just those emotions. Designed by Calvert Vaux, one of the architects of New York City’s Central Park, Riverside features rolling hills, gorgeous views and a park-like setting.

Established in 1887, the cemetery is modeled, in its rural garden style, on Père Lachaise, the magnificent Parisian cemetery, and even includes a well-preserved Confederate embankment. More than 17,000 are buried at Riverside Cemetery, which is also listed on the National Register of His-toric Places.

Riverside is final resting place to many prominent middle Georgians such as William L. Stribling, Jr., nicknamed “Young Strib-ling,” a world-famous heavyweight boxer whose life was cut short at age 28 when he was killed in a motorcycle accident. A longtime member of the Georgia House of Repre-sentatives, Denmark Groover, is laid to rest at Riverside, as are Martha Bibb Hardaway Redding, one of the three founding members of the Phi Mu Sorority, and George Tweedy Stallings, baseball’s “Miracle Man,” who managed the 1914 Boston Braves to a World Championship.

Doonan’s challenge is two-fold: highlighting the cemetery’s identity and historic significance while establishing it as a community resource, both in recreation and education, and finding ways to fund Conservancy programs at a time when nonprofits are struggling.

Despite difficult economic times, Doonan, who began working for the Conservancy in November 2007, knows that Maconites relish opportunities to preserve their city’s heritage.

Partnering with other local preservation organizations, Doonan developed “Spirits of October,” an annual event introducing the living to those who have gone before. More than 200 people took walking tours through the cemetery over several weekends in Octo-ber 2009, while actors portraying cemetery “resi-dents” delivered monologues about their lives.

Doonan researched and wrote the monologues, one of her favorite tasks thus far. “I love learning the stories of the people here,” she says. “I’m excited about sharing their lives and making history jump off the page.” And, with the help of many educators, historians, family members and archived documents, as well as a joint grant from Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources and Department of Economic Development, she has developed a K-12 interdisciplinary Georgia history curriculum that will be introduced in the 2010-2011 school year.

Doonan is an enthusiastic preservationist with a diverse education and work background. She’s a Missi-ssippi native who has lived in Macon since 1971. “This really feels like home to me,” she says, “and the work I do now gives me an even greater opportunity to establish those roots.”

She earned degrees from the Mississippi Uni-versity for Women and from Mercer University. For many years, Doonan was a stay-at-home mom, raising four children before re-entering the workforce as an instructor in school arts programs.

When the Conservancy began looking for someone to develop creative educational and community programs that promoted historic preservation, Doonan was the perfect fit. She has already raised Riverside’s profile by promoting the cemetery, its history, events and programs on the Con-servancy website, riversidecemeteryconservancy.org.

Doonan hopes to impart that same sense of welcome she feels when looking out her office window to cemetery visitors.

“I love that the cemetery is, ironically, a place where history comes to life,” she says. “There are 17,000 stories in this place, and someone’s life is evocative of the era in which they lived. Learning about their lives, you get a sense of what it was like in our community, our state, and our nation.”

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