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06/15/2022 08:30 AM

Dick Mather: A Grave Situation

As president of the River View Cemetery Association, Dick Mather is helping lead the years-long effort to restore some of the cemetery’s oldest grave markers.Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

A grave situation demands a grave solution. No surprise, this is a story about graves, specifically the oldest graves in the River View Cemetery in Essex.

Dick Mather, president of the River View Cemetery Association, knows all about the old gravestones because the cemetery association is now working with a restoration company to refurbish some of them.

The gravestones in question, some as much as 300 years old, are sorely in need of repair; some are broken; some have sunk so far into the ground that parts of their lettering are no longer visible. The inscriptions on many of them, even those standing erect, have been so eroded over the centuries that they are barely legible, if at all.

The old stones, Dick explains, memorialize the early families in Essex, when the town was a thriving shipbuilding center.

“Some 600 ships were built here,” he says, noting in those days Essex was known as Potapaug.

He adds that one of the ships, the Oliver Cromwell, launched in 1776, was the largest ship built in the Connecticut River up to that time. It was also the largest ship in the Connecticut State Navy. It was captured by the British in 1779 off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and renamed HMS Restoration. (The Connecticut State Navy, established in 1775, existed during the Revolutionary War.)

According to Dick, most of the old grave markers are made of marble, granite, or brownstone. The brownstone, quarried locally in Portland, is the softest and thus the most susceptible to damage.

In fact, Dick says, some stones are so badly eroded that there is not enough of the inscription left to make the writing legible in any case. For the stones that are in better shape, the work still must be very delicate to cause no additional damage. The stones are treated with a cleaning solution that over time, with rain, helps make them more readable.

The cemetery association is working with the Essex Historical Society on the restoration project. The society gives tour to highlight the history of the cemetery and those who rest in it.

So far, restorers have done about 50 stones with plans to have 70 completed by year’s end.

“This is a several-year project that we hope will be nearly complete by July 4, 2026, the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,” Dick says.

In the ancient part of the cemetery, as the area with the older gravestones is called, there are some 800 graves, though some of the stones cannot be restored.

Dick took over as president of the president of the River View Cemetery Association from Hank McInerney. When McInerney recruited him for the board, he made an unusual promise: He told Dick this was one board he would never have to raise money for or give money to.

The cemetery association’s endowment makes that possible. In fact, the group’s investments have been managed prudently enough to be able to make donations to local charities through the Community Fund of Middlesex County. Since the association began making such donations in 2001, it has donated some $660,000 to non-profit organizations.

The association manages two properties in addition to River View: Grove Street and Baptist cemeteries.

Dick’s roots in New England are as old as the cemetery. Among his ancestors are the famous Puritan clergyman Increase Mather and his equally famous son Cotton. Increase, according to his own autobiography, was effectively president of Harvard college for 20 years, from 1681 to 1701, though his title varied during the period.

Dick, who now lives in Essex, grew up in Deep River. Both towns have always been very much part of his family’s story. Dick recalls his father keeping scrapbooks devoted to Deep River history. His great-grandfather owned a general store in Essex and his grandfather father owned a similar store in Deep River. His grandfather’s store had a name that was hard to forget: the Wonder Store.

Dick graduated from Valley Regional High School in 1956 in the first class to go all through the newly constructed building. Before that time, he remembers being bused in 8th grade, spending a half day in at school in Essex and then the rest of the day at school in Chester.

After Valley, Dick graduated from Ithaca College and spent his career in corporate human resources, for the last 11 years of his professional life at UTC, United Technologies Corporation.

At the age of 17, Dick’s first job was at the Essex Yacht Club, to which he commuted by hydroplane on the Connecticut River.

“I was a lunch boy,” he recalls.

Dick also remembers working at the Terra Mar Grille, once a fixture in Old Saybrook on the site where the Saybrook Point Resort and Marina is now located.

“Old timers still remember the Terra Mar,” he says.

Ever since childhood, boating has been a part of Dick’s life. In 2016, he sold the 40-foot Hatteras that he used for local cruising.

“We were a cruising family,” he says.

In addition to his wife Pat, he has a grown son and daughter and two granddaughters.

Still, he is not without a boat today, now a 26-foot Pursuit.

“Great for river picnics,” he says.

Dick takes a visitor through the cemetery with obvious pride, pointing out the oldest grave markers, the ones that have already been cleaned, and recent additions to the grounds, among them the terrace with a panoramic view of the Connecticut River, and the new, central garden dedicated to veterans.

Remains of veterans of all the major conflicts the United States has been involved in are interred at River View, dating back to the French and Indian Wars.

Heading the River View Cemetery Association has not made Dick more conscious of the inevitability of life’s end, but he says it has emphasized for him another significant aspect of human existence: the importance of leaving a legacy.