Friday, October 31, 2014


Frequent readers of this blog already know just how much I love Chicago's historic Rosehill Cemetery.  I'll never forget the first time I went there - it was to see the gravesite of R.H. McElroy, the father of my friend "Babe" Drake.  It must have been about 1972.  It was a typical fall day in Chicago - cool and crisp - and although it was overcast, Rosehill was still beautiful with all the trees changing color.  I stopped in at the office to get the grave location.  In those days they gladly filled requests for grave locations - and at no charge!  As I drove down the winding roads to Section S, I thought Rosehill was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen - and certainly the most beautiful cemetery.

Little did I know then, that the beauty that was Rosehill, as well as its sterling reputation, was largely due to the efforts of one man:  Elmer A. Hennig, who had been the President and Superintendent of the Rosehill Cemetery Company from 1952-1975, and a long-time employee before that.  But Hennig's efforts alone could not have done this.  It came about because the integrity of Elmer Hennig inspired all who worked at Rosehill.  From the very start, Elmer knew that Rosehill was a sacred place, dedicated to the memory of all who rested there, and he conveyed this to the employees of Rosehill by his every action.  But more about this later.  

Before we look at what he did at Rosehill, let's see what we can find out about the man, Elmer A. Hennig.

Elmer Arthur Hennig was born May 14, 1905 in Chicago, to Hermann Frederick Hennig (1869-1945) and his wife, Paulina, nee Runzheimer (1874-1939).  Elmer's mother was known as "Polly" to the family.  Elmer had four brothers and one sister who lived to adulthood:  August Horace (1892-1976), Herman Martin (1895-1931), Raymond Clarence (1902-1968) and Bernice Laura (1914-1975).  There was also an infant son who was born in 1901 but did not live.  Hermann Hennig had come to the United States from Wesel, Germany in 1884; Polly was born in Chicago. They married in Chicago on October 10, 1891.  Hermann Hennig was in the drapery business.

In those days, children went to work to support the family before they were able to complete their education.  Elmer wanted to be an attorney so he worked for a law firm during the day while he finished high school at night.  These were difficult times for the country and the law firm had to downsize, so Elmer went to work in the office of the Corticelli Silk Company in Chicago.

In 1925, when he was 20 years old, Elmer heard of a job opening at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.  The job was to be responsible for the care and condition of the grounds, and Elmer was very pleased when he was hired.  This began his 50 year association with Rosehill Cemetery.  

However, his time at Corticelli was not wasted, because it was there he met the love of his life, Bertha Marie Lee (1903-1977).  Bertha was the daughter of Elmer Lee (1877-1936) and Marie Jenette, nee Graabeck (1872-1931).  Both of Bertha's parents were immigrants from Norway.  Elmer and Bertha were married in Chicago on August 5, 1926.

The 1930 US Census shows the newlyweds living at 1723 W. Thorndale in Chicago.  They paid a whopping $51.00 rent per month for their apartment.  Elmer listed his occupation as "Clerk in a Cemetery" and Bertha was "Cashier at Silk Company" meaning that she was probably still with Corticelli.  The one bedroom apartments like Elmer and Bertha rented for $51.00 per month are now condominium units selling for over $200,000.00 each!

1723-25 W. Thorndale, Chicago

The 1930s were good years for Elmer Hennig and his family.  On August 21, 1935, Elmer and Bertha's daughter Judith Ann Hennig was born in Chicago.  At Rosehill, Elmer steadily worked his way up through the ranks and in 1938 was named Superintendent of Rosehill Cemetery.  In addition to the prestige that came with this position, Elmer and his family were also entitled to a house - at 5350 Bowmanville Avenue in Chicago:

5350 Bowmanville Avenue, Chicago

The 1940 US Census shows the Hennig family living in the house at 5350 Bowmanville Avenue.  Elmer listed his occupation as "General Superintendent of a Cemetery."  Bertha did not work outside the home, and 4 year old Judith is listed as a "son."  So much for the accuracy of the census data.

The 1930s and 1940s were exciting times to be at Rosehill Cemetery.  In 1931 the Park Addition north of Peterson Avenue was added to Rosehill after overcoming significant neighborhood opposition.  Only flush-with-the-ground markers were allowed in the Park Addition offering Rosehill's customers the option of burial in a park-like setting for those who didn't like the look of above ground monuments.

In 1935 construction was started on the 5th Addition to the famous Rosehill Community Mausoleum, followed by the 6th Addition in 1942.  Elmer Hennig was actively involved in supervising both of these projects. 

Elmer A. Hennig at his desk at Rosehill.  Note the picture of the Mausoleum on the wall behind him

Elmer's hard work and love of Rosehill was recognized in 1951 when he was named President and Superintendent of the Rosehill Cemetery Company, a position he held until his retirement in 1975.

Elmer Hennig was the type of person who felt that it would be inappropriate to have newspaper publicity about himself unless it was in conjunction with his job - and even then it should be rare.  In his 50 year career at Rosehill Cemetery his name appeared in the Chicago Tribune only once - in 1959 in an article about a Revolutionary War Veteran buried at Rosehill:

And no one was prouder that Elmer and Bertha Hennig when their daughter Judith made them grandparents, with a girl in 1958 and a boy in 1961.

Elmer Hennig turned 65 in 1970 and began to think about retirement.  By then he had completed 45 years with the company and 18 years as President and Superintendent.  But the Rosehill Community Mausoleum was being added to - again - and the owners wanted Elmer to stay on until construction was completed.  They realized that Elmer had been involved with every addition to the mausoleum since the 1930s and his experience and expertise were irreplaceable.  The addition was scheduled to be completed in early 1975 and that would give Elmer an even 50 years with Rosehill.  But the owners had a surprise for him...

I wrote an article for this blog last year about the May Memorial Chapel at Rosehill:  It was a gift from Anna May to Rosehill in memory of her late husband Horatio Nelson May.  It turned out that the new mausoleum addition was going to include a chapel.  Up until that time if chapel space was needed in the mausoleum, they utilized the space outside the John G. Shedd family room in Unit A.  But that area was not meant to be used as a chapel and other than some built-in stone benches and a few single chairs did not have sufficient seating, except for the smallest funerals.  So, as part of the 1975 addition to the mausoleum a beautiful chapel was built with warm wood paneled walls and built in pews for sufficient seating.

Elmer Arthur Hennig Chapel - Rosehill Cemetery

The owners of Rosehill Cemetery decided to name the chapel after Elmer Arthur Hennig as a permanent testimonial to the man who had dedicated his entire business career to Rosehill.

Elmer retired from Rosehill Cemetery on April 30, 1975 at which time he was honored with a ceremony dedicating the chapel in his honor.  The Tribute presented to Elmer by the Rosehill Cemetery Company said in part, "He has an uncanny feel for and unending concern for the propriety of places, persons and actions, that they be right and proper for the time and occasion, and nothing disturbed him more than activities or designs that he felt were improper."

Rufus Beach, on behalf of the Board of Directors said of Elmer, "The calm beauty of the Rosehill grounds is a tribute to his care and concern for the property.  "Beautiful Rosehill" is not just a slogan, it is a fact."

And with that Elmer and Bertha Hennig began to enjoy their retirement.  They bought a small place in Rock, Michigan, and split their time between Michigan and Lubbock, Texas where their daughter Judith lived with her children.  During the cold winter months up north they enjoyed spending time with the family in Lubbock.

Unfortunately their happiness was short-lived.  Bertha Hennig took ill during one of their trips to Lubbock, and that's where she died on January 29, 1977 of heart disease. 

She died one day past her 74th birthday.  She and Elmer had been married for just over 50 years.  Here is a photograph of Elmer and Bertha taken for their 50th wedding anniversary in 1976:

Elmer A. and Bertha Lee Hennig

It goes without saying that Bertha was buried at Rosehill Cemetery in the beautiful plot she and Elmer bought in Section 15.

Here is the memorial card from her funeral:

Her funeral was held in the Hennig Memorial Chapel.  What a wonderful way to honor this special lady.

Life goes on, and Elmer continued to divide his time between Michigan and Lubbock, stopping in Chicago occasionally to visit Bertha's grave and see old friends at Rosehill. 

Elmer A. Hennig, Lubbock, Texas Feb 29, 1979

During one of these visits to Rosehill he was in the office when he ran into Catherine Newren (1910-1984) who was at Rosehill visiting her brother's grave.  Her brother Frank Newren (1905-1975) had been Elmer's best friend when they were growing up, and Catherine was Frank's little sister.  Elmer and Catherine became reacquainted and were married in Lubbock, Texas on June 2, 1979.

Elmer's daughter Judith had this to say about her step-mother Catherine, "She was a special, delightful lady who brought love and happiness to all of us."  Catherine must have been a wonderful person and Elmer was blessed to have re-discovered her after all those years.  The fact that they re-met at Rosehill may have had something to do with it.  Remember, Elmer always thought that Rosehill was a special, sacred place.

Here's a photo of Elmer and Catherine (also known as "Kay"):

Elmer and Kay Hennig

Elmer and Kay continued spending the summers in Michigan and the winters in Lubbock.  Their happiness came to an end however, when Kay died on February 1, 1984 in Lubbock.
Like Bertha before her, Kay was of course, buried in Rosehill Cemetery.

  Here is the memorial card from her funeral:


When Kay died Elmer was 79 years old, and the family felt that it would be better for all of them if he gave up the place in Michigan and moved in with Judith and her family.
Elmer Arthur Hennig died December 10, 1989 in Lubbock, Texas.  He was 84 years old.  As you have already guessed, he was buried at his beloved Rosehill.  Here's his death notice from the Chicago Tribune of December 12, 1989:

Here's what his daughter Judith had to say about Elmer's funeral, "When we buried Dad at Rosehill it was a very cold bitter day and we did not expect that many of his friends would be able to attend, but we were wrong.  The service was held in the chapel.  The thing that warmed my heart the most was when we went to graveside there were so many people that braved the cold and we found many men there in work clothes.  I was delighted to recognize so many familiar faces.  They were men who did not realize until that day that they had prepared a grave for their boss and friend.  They asked if they could be his pallbearers.  Hard to keep a dry eye even now.  They told me that he was the most honest and fairest boss they could imagine.  One of a kind." 

This is not the place to talk about how Rosehill has changed, but it is safe to say that it is not Elmer Hennig's Rosehill any more.  I asked Judith what Elmer would say his greatest accomplishments at Rosehill were.  She said:

  • Keeping the grounds beautiful out of respect for those who rested there
  • Keeping the grounds private and dedicated to the purpose for which they were established.
  • Being a fair and honest employee and treating all of the workers with respect and getting to know them well.
  • Knowing all he could about the people resting there and the fabulous history the grounds held.
  • Overseeing the additions to the mausoleum.

Now you know the story of Elmer A. Hennig.  I will end this article with the final comments I got from his daughter Judith:

"He loved his job at Rosehill, the people there, and the beautiful city."

Elmer A. Hennig - a gentleman in every way - may he rest in peace. 

Acknowledgements:   Thank you to Elmer Hennig's relative Victor Lee for the photos and funeral cards, and most of all for putting me in touch with Judith Bray.

A very special thank you to Elmer and Bertha's daughter Judith Bray for providing photos and being willing to tell me the story of her father and share personal details that helped us to get a better picture of Elmer Hennig.

And most of all thank you to Elmer A. Hennig - a man I never met but greatly admire.  He was mostly responsible for creating the Rosehill Cemetery that I fell in love with, and still enjoy to this day, albeit in a diminished way.  I'm sorry we never met because he had my dream job:  President and Superintendent of Rosehill Cemetery.  I'm sure that the grounds of heaven will be made even more beautiful if Elmer Hennig is in charge of their care.

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