George Cumbee loves gardening. So much so, he took over maintenance of the lawn at Biloxi National Cemetery as a temporary employee.
“Any time I had time available (from his regular job as a caretaker at the cemetery) I’d take care of the lawn,” he said.
As a caretaker, Cumbee was one of the staff who would take care of interments and set headstones.
“I was (caring for the lawn) because I wanted to, and I wanted to do it full time,” he said. “I put everything I had into maintaining the lawns.
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“I’ve always worked outdoors and in my off-duty time, I like to garden. I have fruit trees and stuff and that’s kind of what I did. I’ve been to a few training programs, but most of it has been self-taught.”
Cumbee, 55, said he retired from the Air Force in 2007 and became a caretaker in 2009. When a full-time gardener position was created in 2015, Cumbee was the man for the job.
“When I came here, it was in horrible shape,” he said. “We had minimal manpower, so upkeep on the lawn was between interments and our other duties. It was basically mowing the grass and trimming around headstones.”
That in itself could be a full-time job with 54 acres to maintain. But Cumbee said he’s always looking around to see what can be improved, whether it’s coming in on the weekend to make sure new sod is watered or updating an irrigation system.
“I get people in from time to time to help me, through a temporary program,” he said. “But the irrigation really needs some TLC.”
Biloxi National Cemetery Director Celethia Reed said Cumbee’s dedication has transformed the lawns.
“It’s a constant battle with the weeds and irrigation,” she said. “George spearheads that. It’s amazing what he does. He’s so dedicated.”
Cumbee says his job is different every day, whether it’s manicuring the lawn, fighting the weeds or pruning the stately oaks on the grounds.
“I’ve always said that the thing that makes this cemetery, what makes it unique, are the large oak trees,” he said. “And in the early spring, and around late September, when you come in early and see this thin layer of fog around the headstones — that’s when it looks nice.”
Cumbee said it’s nice to hear people talk about how beautiful the grounds are when they visit the military cemetery. But he’s always looking for ways to make it better.
“People say it looks good, but to me, I see what I can do better.”
Sometimes that means helping contractors lay sod. Sometimes it means coming in on the weekends to make sure the new sod gets enough water. And sometimes it’s being at the cemetery to hand out flags to be placed at headstones for Memorial Day.
“It takes extra work, but going that extra mile sure makes it look good down the road,” he said. “Anything I can do to help them out. I want the cemetery to look nice for people who come to visit.
“I’ll do this as long as I’m able and I hope I get everything in place so the next person who comes in will have it a little easier.”
About the series:
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.