West Newton cemetery manager says goodbye to long career
Between two funeral services Friday at West Newton Cemetery, Ron Olschon and Arthur Hoak stood together outside the cemetery office.
The pair realized they had overseen more than 6,000 funerals at the 45-acre cemetery since they both started working there just after high school.
“We kept each other in line. We did a lot of work,” Hoak said.
Plenty of well-wishers visited Friday during an open house that marked the last day of Olschon’s 33-year tenure as general manager of the cemetery. He spent 45 years working on the grounds just off Vernon Drive, where about 21,000 internments have taken place since 1852.
“When we got out of high school, you had the mines, you had the mills … so we thought about that, but then, a couple years down the road, things started to change,” Olschon said.
As hard times hit the coal and steel industries, some friends like those from the 1974 class of West Newton High School, lost their jobs, Olschon said.
“We said, ‘Hey, maybe it’s not so bad, we’ll stay here.’”
Olschon succeeded general manager Bill Kraynek in 1985.
“Everything was very antiquated and they changed a lot of things, updated a lot of things over the years,” Olschon said. “I took a lot of things from him. I learned a lot.”
He quickly learned his own style of working with people, as he hopes his successor, Ben Markle, will, too.
“You get the good with the bad,” Olschon said. “You work with the people and you show them you care, and that means a lot to them.”
Markle, 35, has 14 years’ experience grounds keeping at the cemetery, beginning in 2004, with breaks from studying business at Washington and Jefferson College.
All four of the full-time staff take pride in their care of the cemetery, which has helped it develop a highly regarded reputation, Markle said.
“My first day here, (Olschon) told me to pick up sticks, and I was like, ‘Oh boy, they’re really detail-oriented,’” Markle said.
Olschon appreciated the advice of mentor Dave Scholl, former superintendent at Belle Vernon Cemetery.
“He always told me, ‘If you treat every burial like it’s one of your family, you’ll never go wrong,’ and that’s stuck with me.”
Some families are dealing with tragedies, the worst times in their lives, so Olschon said he never tried to pressure or rush anyone, instead creating a welcoming atmosphere.
“It’s tough at times, it really is … then you move on because you don’t know what the next day or even the next hour’s going to be,” Olschon said. “The way we’ve always thought is that you’re helping some of the people, easing some of their pain.”
West Newton Cemetery board President Armand Luzi called Olschon “steady,” “laid back,” and “dedicated” in the 22 years he has served on the board. Board Treasurer Bob Allen agreed.
“To do that kind of work, you have to have a special thing in your heart when people are grieving,” Allen said. “Guys like Ron, they’re special.”
During Olschon’s time, a veteran’s memorial was added near the chapel, first overseen by volunteers, now entirely handled by the cemetery.
Staff also work with volunteers for the annual Avenue of Flags display, featuring 353 flags in honor of deceased local veterans, first begun nearly 25 years ago with 75 flags.
“Little by little, the improvements continue and, hopefully, they will continue down the road,” Olschon said.
The community also connects to the cemetery through the original entrance, now an opening to the Great Allegheny Passage trail, improved with a Westmoreland County Tourism grant and West Newton Rotary Club help in 2012.
Visitors on bicycles laden with saddle bags now are a frequent sight on the paved lanes, Olschon said, along with daily walkers who say “hello.”
He got to know some families so well that, if they missed the deadline to pick up wreaths and artificial flowers from graves, he’d have the crew save them in the garage in case the families still wanted to collect them.
“You feel like it’s part of the family, they respect that,” Olschon said. “You figure you’re helping them a little bit. I’m going to miss it, there’s no doubt, but it’s time to move on.”
After serving as fire chief for nearby Collinsburg Volunteer Fire Department for six years, Olschon currently is emergency management coordinator in Rostraver Township, a post he plans to continue.
In retirement, he wants to spend more time with his wife, Penny, and two adult children, Patricia and Robert, and plans to do plenty more hunting and fishing.
Stacey Federoff is a freelance writer.