Hushed notes of a cello floated over the Old Biloxi Cemetery Sunday as crowds of people gathered around graves to hear the stories of Biloxi’s deceased mayors, as told by their descendants or actors who dressed like them and talked how they might have talked.
“I gave my heart and soul to this city,” said John Kennedy. He was portrayed by his great-great nephew Justin Kennedy, who stayed in the role, even handing out postcards of the Kennedy Hotel in Biloxi. He offered a free night at the hotel on Dukate near the railroad tracks, a hotel no longer standing.
This is the 10th year for the cemetery tour that isn’t at all scary, especially not on a bright Sunday afternoon. Another chance to see the re-enactments comes Tuesday from 5-7 p.m., as the sun sets and the shadows lengthen in the cemetery on U.S. 90, west of the Biloxi Lighthouse.
The first person to welcome them with a whiskey and a room was no other than me.
Justin Kennedy, portraying his great-great uncle, John Kennedy, who was a hotel and tavern owner and mayor of Biloxi
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Seventeen mayors are portrayed, a couple of them not buried in this cemetery but in the city. Three of the mayors were “joined” by their wives.
It was a bit disconcerting to see current Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich and former Mayor A.J. Holloway walking among the graves of the deceased mayors and being included in the stories. Kennedy said he was the longest-serving mayor in Biloxi — until Holloway bettered him.
Kennedy added a bit of humor, dispelling the rumor that the great Biloxi fire started in his saloon. “All hearsay,” he said. He was a partner in the Kennedy Lopez oyster plant, employing more than 500 people in season, and he spoke with conviction, saying as long as the Biloxi Lighthouse is standing, the city will be going strong, “Now and 100 years from now.”
Deborah Stanovich wandered over from her home a block away and said she hadn’t been to a tour since the first one, after the damage from Hurricane Katrina was repaired.
“I don’t recall it being as vast back then,” she said. She was so impressed, she plans to return for an encore on Tuesday.
Lloyd and Mimi Elmer traveled 2,600 miles from their home in Gig Harbor, Washington, to see the portrayal of his great uncle, F.W. Elmer. They watched several times as Bill Raymond told the former mayor’s story.
Mimi Elmer said there is nothing like the cemetery in Washington. “What an event,” she said. “We’re delighted to be invited here.”
Jane Shambra, head of the Local History & Genealogy Department at the Biloxi Library, told them about his ancestor being portrayed and invited them to Biloxi to continue their genealogy research on his family and hers, the Sauciers.
“They’ve been in the library researching and they’re going to come back tomorrow,” Shambra said.
Generations of families roamed the cemetery, stopping at each flag for another portrayal. There was no grave in this cemetery for mayors R. Hart Chinn, who served two separate terms in 1933 and again in 1951. He and his wife were portrayed by Boyce Deaton and Amber Dawn, and right next to them in his uniform stood John O’Keefe, who is buried at the Biloxi National Cemetery.
“He had to take the city by force because Mayor Chinn wouldn’t give it up,” said his great nephew Jeffrey O’Keefe, portraying his great uncle who was took office in 1935 and served only a year when he was offered the job of Adjudant General for Mississippi. He resigned with his greatest accomplishment in office likely getting Chinn out.
Laz N. Quave said he prepared to portray his grandfather, Laz Quave, known as the “Dean of Gulf Coast Politics,” by reading through the former mayor’s handwritten notes. They were known to be “somewhere” and recently found by his aunt.
“A lot of my information is directly from him,” Quave said. “He always wanted to tell his story so he’s calling to us.”