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Town Meeting Member Ron Wallace discusses his cemetery project to honor Benjamin Newhall Johnson, the late Saugonian who once owned the land at Breakheart Reservation

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~ The Advocate Asks ~

  Editor’s Note: For this week, we sat down with Precinct 5 Town Meeting Member Ron Wallace, who talked about a special project he undertook in Riverside Cemetery – cleaning up the headstone of Benjamin Newhall Johnson – a local historian and attorney who owned what would later become Breakheart Reservation. Wallace, 53, is a 1987 Saugus High School graduate and a lifelong resident of the town. He is in the final year of his fourth two-year term on the Saugus Town Meeting. He has been a low voltage electrical technician for 35 years, in Local 103. He and his wife, Amy, a Lynn native, have been married for 22 years. They have three children: Alex, 16, who is a sophomore at Saugus Middle-High School; Abigail, 18, who is a freshman at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.; and Andrew, 20, who will be a junior at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. Amy Wallace has worked for 29 years as a Special Education teacher in Lynn Public Schools. Following his graduation from Saugus High School, Wallace spent four years in the JATC (Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee) program run by the I.B.E.W. Local 103. He is very involved in car shows, particularly antique cars. In addition to being elected to serve four two-years terms on the Annual Town Meeting, he is currently in his first term as a member on the town’s Cemetery Commission. He has also in the past volunteered to help cleanup efforts on the Saugus portion of the Northern Strand Community Trail, town parks and playgrounds. Highlights of this week’s interview follow.

  Q: How did the unkempt gravestone of Benjamin Newhall Johnson come to your attention?

  A: I was actually walking through the cemetery last November and I stumbled upon it. I already knew who he was because I read a book about Breakheart Reservation.

  Q: Tell me about the gravestone. What kind of condition was it in?

  A: Terrible. It was in very bad shape. It probably hadn’t been cleaned in 90 years. I didn’t do anything, because I had to get permission to clean it.

  Q: Who is Benjamin Newhall Johnson?

  A: He was a Saugus native who went to Saugus schools. He graduated from Harvard University cum laude in 1878 with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, and he went on to become a very powerful attorney in Boston. I believe he lived in Lynn at the time of his death. He bought all of the land that Breakheart Reservation is now on. He was born June 19, 1856, in Lynn, Mass. He grew up in Saugus and was educated in Saugus schools, and he died in Lynn on Feb. 19, 1932.

  Q: And why should Benjamin Newhall Johnson’s name be important to Saugus residents who pride themselves on knowing the history of their hometown?

  A: The reason I wanted to clean his grave is that he gave Saugus the greatest gift he could ever give – Breakheart Reservation – all of that recreation land. Breakheart is owned by the DCR [state Department of Conservation & Recreation]. He died in 1932 and the state purchased it two years later. He donated a lot of money to local organizations. And the land he owned – the family sold it to the state for a very reasonable amount of money.

  I do a lot of hiking at Breakheart, so I know the history of Mr. Johnson. He had a lodge there on the land that is now Breakheart. You can still see the foundation on what is called The Lodge Trail. He dammed the Saugus River and made the two lakes at Breakheart, known as Silver and Pearce Lakes. He liked to hunt out there and stay in the lodge. It was his vacation place.

  Q: What else do you want to tell me or tell the readers of The Saugus Advocate about Mr. Johnson?

  A: People should be aware that somebody left that land to the state, and thousands and thousands of people enjoy it every year – an unbelievable gift. The least I could do is clean his monument. I thought it was really neat that he left $5,000 to the Town of Saugus for the library, and, specifically, his will said that the whole $5,000 had to be used to buy library books. He also left $5,000 for the Methodist Episcopal Church of East Saugus, to pay the pastor’s salary. He must have really liked him. Five grand in 1932 was a lot of money.

  Q: Please tell me about the logistics of your cemetery project.

  A: I saw Mr. Johnson’s headstone again this year, and it was really, really dirty. I’m probably more concerned about it because I am a member of the town Cemetery Commission. And one of the members mentioned a Facebook group called “The Good Cemeterian,” a group of people who donate their time and are dedicated to cleaning headstones.

  I had the urge that I had to clean it for him. It was the biggest undertaking for my stone cleaning. I have a considerable amount of hours invested in it – at least eight hours. I had some help from Tom Raiche, a former Saugonian and Saugus High graduate. He likes to clean headstones, too, and he came down one day and gave me a hand.

  Q: You had to get permission to clean the stone?

  A: Yes. You have to get permission to clean any headstone in any cemetery, in general. You always should get permission before you start to clean it.

  Q: Okay, so after you got permission, how did you proceed?

  A: The first two days that I started cleaning, I felt discouraged that I was in over my head. It was so far gone, that I felt I was way over my head on this project. But after a few times of working on it, I felt good about it and was making some progress.

  Q: Did you try different cleaning agents?

  A: No, you only use a soft brush and a wooden paint stick. You don’t want to use any harsh abrasives or a wire brush or bleach that will harm the stone.

  Q: Okay, what was the cleaning agent you used?

  A: D-2 Biological Solution. It’s actually used in Arlington National Cemetery, and it’s not sold in stores.

  Q: And what did you use to apply it?

  A: You spray it on and let it sit for 10 minutes and scrub it with a soft brush and wash all the dirt off with clean water. The way the stuff works – it is a time-released cleaning agent. It keeps cleaning the stone for a long time. It kills all the algae on the stone, which is all that junk you see on it.

  Q: Are you still cleaning it?

  A: No, it’s pretty much done – just letting Mother Nature take care of it now.

  Q: When did you finish it?

  A: Last week.

  Q: You mentioned that there are a few other headstones in the cemetery that you have been working on. How many?

  A: I’ve cleaned about 30 other stones. But this is the one I’m most proud of. I’ve done a bunch of World War II veterans, too. Then there’s Isabelle Louise Hallin.

  Q: Oh yes. That’s the Saugus schoolteacher who was forced to resign in 1937 after unsubstantiated rumors that she served alcohol and cigarettes to her students during a practice of a high school play in the basement of her parents’ home. The School Committee voted to exonerate her in January 1942 – 11 days after her tragic Christmas Eve death in her New York City apartment. At the recommendation of Peter Manoogian, who researched the Hallin story, the Annual Town Meeting voted in 2012 to adopt “The Hallin Principle” and approve the creation of the plaque which was unveiled the following year. It reads: “May our actions within this Town Hall lead to greater wisdom and justice rather than sorrow and regret.”

  The plaque, which includes a photo of Isabelle Louise Hallin, is illuminated and hangs on the wall of the landing between the first and second floors of Saugus Town Hall – for everybody to see when they enter and exit the second floor auditorium.

  A: Yeah, that’s the one. And I cleaned that headstone, too.

  Q: How many total hours have you devoted to cleaning headstones in Riverside Cemetery?

  A: Many, many hours; too many to tell you. It’s really hard work, but I enjoy it. I feel like I’m doing a nice thing. I like restoring things anyway. I think it’s a nice thing to do for somebody who is not around anymore.

  Regarding the Hallin stone, Peter Manoogian gave me contact information to get family permission to clean the stone. I talked to a nephew in Alton, N.H., and he gave me permission to clean the stone. He told me he remembered going there as a little boy to put flowers on it. It was really neat that he told me that – it made my day. And I felt good after I cleaned the stone.

  Q: Anything else that you would like to share about this project?

  A: I think it would be neat if the Friends of Breakheart and maybe the DCR would come down to Riverside Cemetery and do a little ceremony. This is the 90th year since he passed, and it would be nice to acknowledge that.

Cleaning the Isabelle Hallin headstone-2
Cleaning the Isabelle Louise Hallin headstone at Riverside Cemetery is Precinct 5 Town Meeting Member Ron Wallace. (Saugus Advocate photo by Mark E. Vogler)
Ron Wallace displayed the cleaning solution
Ron Wallace displayed the cleaning solution he used to remove decades of stains from the headstones of departed Saugonians – including the monument of Benjamin Newhall Johnson. (Saugus Advocate photo by Mark E. Vogler)

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