Marjorie Sladek Stueckemann grew up largely unfamiliar with her Bohemian heritage. It was only after retiring as a science teacher in 2001 that she got involved. Immersed might be a better word.
Her curiosity led her to research her roots, which in turn brought her to Bohemian National Cemetery on Chicago's Northwest Side.
"This is the most basic tie to my heritage, the cemetery of my grandparents and great-grandparents," she says.
Stueckemann now spends 20 to 30 hours a week as president of the Friends of Bohemian National Cemetery, a 300-member group founded in 2004 whose mission is to "promote the historical significance, enhance the beauty and preserve the artistic heritage" of the cemetery, one of only two in Chicago to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Bohemian National was founded in 1877, precipitated by a portion of the Bohemian community's ongoing conflict with the Catholic Church. The last straw, the story goes, was a Catholic priest's refusal to allow the burial of a Bohemian woman because she had not made a final confession. Angry, representatives from various Bohemian societies came together and raised the money to open Bohemian National Cemetery.
Since then, it has grown to 124 acres and has been the final resting place for more than 120,000 people, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who died in a 1933 assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and 143 victims of the 1915 Eastland Disaster.
In addition to its historical significance, Bohemian National is a showplace, and a large part of the credit for that goes to the all-volunteer group that Stueckemann, 71, heads.
The Friends of Bohemian National not only raises funds but does some of the actual work. The current project involves restoring the decorative art of John A. Mallin in Ceremony Hall of the crematorium/columbarium.
Q: Where is home?
A: I was born in Chicago, Edison Park. It was so rural in 1941, they cut hay behind our house. I always thought I could get a pony because we had hay right there. Never did.
Q: What led you to teaching?
A: I attended Millikin but quit to get married at 19. I went to work but I hated being a secretary. I said (to my husband), Dave, "I can't stand it." He said, "Go back to school." ... I graduated with a science specialty and started teaching. My daughter was born in 1966, then I went back to teaching in 1977, junior high science.
Q: When you were As a child, did cemeteries hold a special fascination?
A: Not particularly. I'd come here (as a child). My mother would drag me along. Grandma used to bring flowers and plant them on the graves. I'd run around and look at the pictures (on the monuments). That was fun.
Q: What's your fondest memory here?
A: I think when we rebound the burial registers (the five large books that document all burials, which were being held together with duct tape). One of them has my grandparents in it, and the Eastland (victims).
Q: Is there ghost lore attached to Bohemian National?
A: We're a funerary museum of art and history. We're not looked at as a creepy place. It's a garden. Come here and be inspired. All that cemetery lore — "Come see Resurrection Mary" — that's not our thing. Come see the art and history here.
Q: The cemetery has been here more than 130 years, so it's a great source for people doing genealogical research.
A: Ancestry.com, and that "Who Do You Think You Are?" TV series, because of things like that I think cemeteries benefit from the interest. That's part of the reason we're successful. People are searching for their roots, see the place and they love it.
Q: Bohemian National is pretty all-inclusive.
A: Anyone can be buried here. That was the idea when it was founded. We permit observation in our crematorium; so Hindus like our crematorium because they can watch (a Hindu tradition). We have the Cubs wall, "The Eternal Skybox" (a columbarium for the ashes of Cubs fans). Like Catholic cemeteries, we have crosses and saints and angels. Beautifully sculpted.
Q: The monuments — everywhere you look — are amazing.
A: You can see such artists in this place. Mario Korbel did a monument ... Albin Polasek ... And we have so many tree sculptures. They were all made individually. ... One of my friends says the monuments were the college education of the times. They saved for it. It was important to have a beautiful monument.
Q: Do you have a favorite part of the tours here?
A: When Albert starts off his tours, he says this cemetery came into being as a protest movement.
A: Albert Walavich. He's a professional tour guide. We call him our godfather because he petitioned the board to start a group like us. He planted the idea, I think it was 2002. This was before we were even a twinkle in anyone's eye.
Q: Where's the best Bohemian restaurant around Chicago?
A: If you want something authentic, I recommend Klas on Cermak in Cicero. Very good food, especially for banquets. Al Capone was a friend of Mr. Klas and used to play cards there.
The Friends of Bohemian National Cemetery has two events planned: an update on ongoing restoration of Ceremony Hall on May 20, and two Albert Walavich-led tours on June 2. Go to friendsofbnc.org for details.