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.

He created the project "Connecting Families Across The Globe" and is the designated international research correspondent for Bingham City Cemetery and the Jordan School District, which inherited management of the cemetery after the town of Bingham ceased to exist.

By restoring history, he has broken barriers.

The brother of one Bingham City Cemetery occupant was blunt with Jencks one day.

"(He) asked me why a white boy would care about his Hispanic brother. It about floored me."

Jencks had helped install the headstone he received from the Veterans Administration to place at the World War II veteran's grave site.

"Putting in a new headstone was the least I could do for him because he served our country and gave me freedom."

On another day, Jencks gathered with the descendents of John Virginio Minetti, an Italian immigrant buried at Bingham.

"I met his family from three states and participated in a memorial service for him, 98 years after his death. We sang and prayed in Italian and English."

To see how Jencks has choreographed a community effort to resurrect the stories of the dead and bring them to the living is to assume a passion has been kindled in him that won't be snuffed with time, unlike those gravestone etchings. That's true.

He says he will be involved in the Bingham Cemetery project as long as he lives and has even considered his own burial there.

But the young man is quick to point out that — believe it or not — it is not his passion, not even close.

His real passion is to become an oral surgeon, to reconstruct lives that way. He's already traveled to Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala to deliver supplies to needy children in orphanages, schools and villages and authored a dental care book in Spanish.

His other passion is music. He sings in eight languages, composes music, and plays the piano and guitar.

He combined his love of music and medicine to produce a CD called "There is Hope for a Brighter Day," which is being used by area doctors, hospitals and medical organizations to bring comfort to suffering patients.

"I believe there is a healing power in music," he said.

The list of what Jencks has done and plans to do is long, but he doesn't like the spotlight and says what he does isn't about recognition. In fact, he's pretty matter of fact about his motivation and deflecting credit.

" I am an average guy who finds joy in giving of my time and talents to help people that need me."

His motto?

"It takes a community, not just a boy."

E-MAIL: amyjoi@desnews.com

How to help

Brad Jencks and his team have identified more than 1,000 unmarked graves at Bingham City Cemetery, but hundreds remain. If you would like to find out more, need assistance or can offer assistance go to www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~utsaltla/Cemeteries/Bingham or e-mail binghamcemeteryinfo@jensgroup.com.

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