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Buried Treasure

A Reflection

If you asked me to name my all-time favorite Rutgers Magazine story, I'd probably pick this one. Kudos to Editor Renee Olson, who agreed to the idea of me channeling Colonel Henry in the first person and weaving former editor Lori Chambers’ narrative about the search for the gravesite into a single piece. It was an unusual approach, and that made it especially fun to work on.

Major credit also to John Pearson, the man who tipped me off to the fact that the Colonel’s final resting place had never been determined. John, director of special gifts for the Rutgers University Foundation at the time, saw a small mention in a regional section of the Star-Ledger that suggested Col. Henry might be buried in a small, neglected graveyard behind a declining church in Belleville. No one was a better source through the years for stories than John, a master salesmen who once talked my mother into giving my daughter Sam the money to take the Rutgers Newark Chorus trip to Wales. Besides the money he raised, John deserves a boatload of Rutgers Medals for all his extracurricular contributions to the university.

The fun part of the story was searching for historical nuggets and stringing them together. I first reached out to University Historian Richard P. McCormick, who was at his summer home in Cape Cod. While he literally wrote the book on Rutgers history, he told me that Colonel Henry had played a practically next-to-nothing role in the institution's development. “Good luck, son,”  he said.  “I really know very little about him.”

The mystery of where the Colonel is buried is saved to the end of the narrative, a great storytelling technique and unusual in magazine narrative. We spread the various pieces of the story out like a puzzle on Lori's dining room table in Highland Park for organizational purposes. She figured it all out, while I nodded my approval. Some other things stand out about this story all these years later: 1. The New York Historical Society is an amazing place to not only conduct research, but to also visit. 2. Left out of the story (and the historical record) is that the Colonel may have lived a closeted gay life. He lived to a ripe old age, but never mentioned a romantic interest.

Two years after the story was published, an alumni group raised money to have the Colonel’s grave marked at his final resting place: Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. I was invited to speak at the unveiling-of-the-stone service. John and I drove to the event together on a Saturday afternoon. Afterwards, Green-Wood’s historian gave the Rutgers group a walking tour of one of the few places in New York City that retains its original topography. I highly recommend a visit, especially if you love trees.