Christmas came early for Betty Ewart.
Betty, 90, never, ever thought she’d see the day when anything good would come of what just a decade ago she recalled as a decrepit Knights of Pythias Greenwood Cemetery. A hopeful person by nature – a fighter who in her 70s won her battle with late-stage cancer – Betty had all but given up hope for the cemetery and its once splendid main house that holds a very special place in her remarkable life. Betty lived in the old house for much of her younger years. Her family operated the cemetery for nearly a half-century, and it is the final resting place of her grand parents, parents, and brother.
“Ten years ago we visited and the place was looking awful,” recalled Betty during her Christmas week visit to Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Eastern Regional Medical Center to share her vivid recollections of life at Greenwood with members of the revitalization team. Robert, her son, accompanied Betty.
“For years I felt so bad we didn’t have the money to move our graves like so many others did. That’s how bad things got,” she explained. “It was really bad as a result of the years of neglect and mismanagement, nothing like when my grandfather, William Hamill, and eventually my uncle and aunt operated it. We were meticulous. It was beautiful, the house, the grounds. Eventually it got so bad there were funeral directors who didn’t even want to go in there.”
Horrified at the decline of the once grand Greenwood, but now elated by its revitalization that includes the restoration of the historic residence, she smiles easily as she and Bob displayed lovingly maintained family snapshots and framed original records.
“There I am on a bench, and that one is me in a dress feeding a squirrel,” she recalls. “Just look at that one by the horse-drawn cart, and look at that car.”
Betty’s intimate connection to Greenwood begins with her Irish-born grandfather. “My grandfather came to Philadelphia from Ireland when he was 19. He walked up from Kensington to get a job as a gravedigger, and he was there only a few years when they needed a superintendent, and he stayed on for almost 50 years.”
She describes a time of excitement, intrigue and boundless activity as a young girl living in the cemetery superintendent’s house.
“When there were funerals, my grandfather would ring a bell so the workers knew it was time to gather for a burial. I remember riding in a horse-drawn cart, and then a pick-up truck and we had a cow in the barn, and there was an outhouse and eventually electricity. Oh, how I remember sparks flying along the wires when we got electricity.”
All cherished memories. “The cemetery office was on our first floor, off to the side, and that’s where the vault was, for the money. And my grandfather at the end of each day would lock the vault with a big key and then put it out of reach on top of a cabinet. I remember that.
Now living in a retirement community in Lancaster, Betty remains loyal to the old neighborhood. “I still go to the dentist in Frankford and remember the Frankford High Thanksgiving Day football rivalry against Northeast Catholic.”
Looking at renderings of the house as it will appear once restored to its former glory days, Betty says, “This is just so exciting and overwhelming for me.”