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Young Utahn helps bring Bingham City Cemetery back to life

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue

Deseret News

Published: Monday, May 25 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Brad Jencks talks to his grandfather, Stan Jencks, at the end of a dedication ceremony at Bingham City Cemetery.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

On a rocky hillside off the Old Bingham Highway, Brad Jencks makes introductions. To the west there are brothers Mike, Nick and George Savich, orphans who went on to serve in World War II. None of them ever married.

Or there's Virgil John Baughman, a Navy man so strong he could lift a Volkswagen.

Cora Copenhaver Shannon was raped and impregnated as a teenager. She is Jencks' great-great-aunt.

"Over there is Axel Strand," Jencks says pointing, anxious for the visitor to see the spot where the World War II veteran is buried.

This place of death, the Bingham City Cemetery, has become a place of life, stories of tragedy, like babies Joseph and Rosalie Xaiz who died the same day in a fire, or stories of life long lived, like Peter Clays, another veteran who went on to work in the Bingham mines.

Many of their stories have come to light because of Jencks and the army of volunteers he has fashioned.

Initially, it was only a quest to find out about his own ancestors that brought him to the ghost town cemetery.

"I saw many things that bothered and fascinated me."

Broken headstones. No headstones. Forgotten, unmarked graves. A cemetery rich with ethnic history — a Hispanic section, Yugoslavian section, a Japanese headstone, and all those babies buried there.

Five years later, the cemetery has a paved road and Jencks and his team have identified more than 1,000 previously unmarked graves. He's authored a 1,500-page book documenting each grave site and set up a virtual tour of the cemetery with GPS locations for every known grave.

He's secured new markers for more than a dozen veterans from six wars, had a granite memorial installed and has a "wall of honor" at the entrance of the cemetery showing known burials.

It hasn't been easy — he and his friends were shooed away while doing research at a genealogy library.

"She thought we were playing computer games. When we showed her the hundreds of records we found (53,000 death certificates) she was floored. She apologized. I told her to never underestimate the power of a youth volunteer."

You see, Jencks is 18, set to graduate from Bingham High School in a just a few short days. What began as a 100-hour Eagle Scout project evolved into 2,790 hours in which he earned the designation, and it continues even now.

Today you will find him at Bingham City Cemetery, stalking the visitors who trickle in to place flowers and other remembrances.

The cemetery is where he and his family have spent every Memorial Day weekend since 2004. The family borrowed an RV for four of those weekends and camped out among the crumbled stones, faded etchings and solitary metal stakes that are supposed to bear the names of who those who died. They are silent because of floods and fire and time.

"The thing that bothered me the most was visualizing all the unknown burials in unmarked graves with nothing more than a rusty metal marker, no names. I knew each person buried there had a name and face."

One year in advance of Memorial Day weekend, he and his team fashioned 2,400 notes, sealed them in plastic bags and attached them to each of the markers where information remains incomplete. It was a plea for details.

"I knew that living family held the key that would unlock the many mysteries and lack of information about this cemetery and its people," Jencks said. "The more I learned about the people the greater my ambition was to continue researching. I learned that each person buried there was a real person who lived a life just like you and me. It absolutely fascinated me."

Jencks said that as a result, he not only learned local history, but worldwide history, corresponding with people in Denmark, Finland, Australia, Croatia, Italy and more.

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