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Vietnam vet keeps memories alive

As he placed flags on the graves of soldiers who fought in battles dating back to the 1800s, Pat Coniff reflected on the connection shared by veterans.

“They all mean a lot to me,” said the Vietnam veteran. “I can go up to any veteran anywhere, and we have a bond. We can talk to each other and understand each other. It’s like you’re long lost friends.

Coniff became the sexton, or caretaker, of the historic International Association of Oddfellows Cemetery outside Gold Hill in 1989. The 8-acre cemetery is home to over 450 graves, including those of 81 veterans, and more are added every year.

When Coniff took responsibility for the cemetery, the land was overrun with brush, lilacs and poison oak, with madrone and oak trees in danger of crashing down on gravestones and visitors.

“I came down and looked at the cemetery and said, ‘What do I do?’ I just attacked it and kept going. Then my family got involved,” he said.

His wife, Brenda Coniff, has been his partner in cleaning up the cemetery and getting stone markers for many of the graves that went unmarked for decades. The cemetery has been burned over at least twice, destroying wooden crosses, and some people buried there didn’t have family members or money to pay for grave markers. Some veterans’ graves were marked only with metal tags.

The Coniffs have been helped by people ranging from veterans to Boy Scouts to Southern Oregon Granite in Medford, which offered a discount on gravestones if they could order 10 at a time. Other family members have also joined in the effort.

“We have a passion and feel a commitment to get markers in so people can find their loved ones. Everyone deserves respect,” Brenda Coniff said.

They won a grant to have the towering trees in the cemetery pruned, with hazardous trees removed. During 100 degree-plus temperatures this past summer, Pat Coniff and other volunteers cut up and split the trees into nine cords of firewood. Sales helped fund the purchase of gravestones.

This past weekend, the Trail Life Boy Scout Troop and their parents raked all the leaves in the cemetery, helping get it in shape for Veterans Day visitors. The historic cemetery near Del Rio Vineyards regularly gets visitors on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Back in 1898, the International Association of Oddfellows fraternal club built a lodge in Gold Hill. They bought acreage for the IOOF cemetery from the Rock Point Cemetery and got the deed for the land in 1900, Pat Coniff said.

“The mission of the IOOF was to bury the dead, take care of the sick, educate the orphans and take care of the widows,” he said.

The Coniffs identify with that mission to care for the most vulnerable.

Before he retired, Pat Coniff helped prep people for surgery at the Asante and Providence hospitals in Medford.

After being a full-time homemaker with five children, Brenda Coniff went back to college at night and became a certified tumor registrar. She documented diagnoses of cancer to help with research, education and the spotting of cancer clusters. Doctors could check registrar information to guide treatment decisions.

In 1998, the couple’s son Sean Coniff died in a motor vehicle accident one week before his graduation from Crater High School. He was a peer counselor for other teens at school and active in his church and 4-H. His parents accepted his diploma on his behalf at the graduation ceremony.

The Coniffs buried their son at the IOOF cemetery and have a family tradition of visiting him there.

“We get to spend time with Sean and we get to have lunch with him,” Brenda Coniff said. “The first couple of years, we cried. Now we laugh and reminisce about all the good times. You do what you have to do to make it through.”

Pat Coniff said he and his wife are especially drawn to the grave sites of forgotten people who are buried there.

When they discovered that several cavalry soldiers lacked stone monuments, they set to work to get marble markers.

The soldiers came from Oregon, New York, Illinois, Ohio and other states to fight in the bitter, bloody wars between settlers building new lives for themselves and Native Americans battling to keep their homelands.

A dozen old and new white marble markers now mark “cavalry row” in the cemetery, with two unmarked graves still to go.

The Coniffs also want to create a memorial at the Rosecrans family plot.

World War I veteran William Rosecrans is buried there. Born in 1895, he survived the war and died in 1984.

His son, Sgt. Robert Edwin Rosecrans, was in an airplane that was shot down over Japan in World War II. All the crew members were in their 20s. Their bodies were never recovered.

Brenda Coniff said with no body, the Rosecrans family didn’t get to have the closure of a funeral and burial.

She said getting to know the stories of the people buried at the IOOF cemetery makes caring for the site even more personal.

“I feel like I know half these people,” she said.

The couple have more plans for the cemetery, including straightening leaning gravestones and rebuilding wooden borders around family plots.

“We have a mission. We’re going to get it done,” Pat Coniff said.

Anyone who would like to donate to maintain the cemetery and buy grave markers can send a check to IOOF Gold Hill Lodge 129, Attn. Cemetery Committee, P.O. Box 394, Gold Hill, OR 97525.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Pat Coniff, sexton of the Gold Hill IOOF Cemetery, says a prayer after placing a flag on a veteran’s grave in preparation for Veterans Day. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune