Let’s set the record straight about Rusty, the world’s best graveyard dog.
To the many of you wanting to adopt Oakland Cemetery’s watchful mascot, please know Rusty is already in his 48-acre forever home with a family who loves him.
Most likely forsaken by his original owners, Rusty has lived for almost three years like a king at this Dallas cemetery, with warm and safe shelter, a rich supply of treats and volunteers who spoil him rotten.
If you want to help Rusty continue to live his best life, make a financial donation or a gift of your time to support historic Oakland Cemetery.
“A donation to the cemetery is a donation to Rusty,” Oakland administrator Monica Newbury told me. “Saving the cemetery is the best way to save Rusty.”
If volunteers can get help funding the landscape work and other maintenance, they can continue to provide Rusty with companionship — plus keep the cemetery clean and safe for both visitors and their much-adored guardian dog.
Call them Oakland’s weed-eating fools or Team Rusty, they answer to either.
Rusty became an overnight celebrity after the publication of my column about the tiny team that has brought Oakland’s sacred grounds, just off Malcolm X Boulevard, back from the dead. Since then, a mass of visitors has dropped by to catch a glimpse of the elusive dog.
Many others — including those who previously thought Oakland permanently locked them out several years ago — have come to pay tender homage at the gravesites of their loved ones.
A steady stream of tears, some shed for loss and others in gratitude, has fallen on these grounds the last two weeks.
One couple wandered the cemetery in search of the grave belonging to a baby sister who died more than 70 years ago. Tom White, an ever-present volunteer, asked if he could help and, with a check of Oakland’s records, was able to walk them to the newborn’s unmarked plot.
“Now they are ordering a marker to honor the memory of that family member,” 75-year-old Tom told me.
Another couple, who had not visited Oakland in 40 years, wept at seeing their family’s well-tended plot. Others asked for instructions on how to clean the stones of their ancestors. Some who came had no family buried here but wanted to know more about the cemetery’s history.
Monica and Tom, who rarely take off from a day’s hard work, are thrilled by the swarm of new faces and renewed interest. “If only they each brought a weed eater with them,” Monica laughed.
A century after the cemetery conducted its first 1892 burial, the tranquil grounds began to fall into shocking disrepair. With funding long gone, the former Oakland Cemetery Lot Owners Association let neglect overrun the property, its gravestones shrouded by massive mounds of bush and vines.
When the former association board posted a closed sign and walked away in 2019, City Council member Adam Bazaldua asked civic-minded Lynn McBee to save the day with a new leadership group.
“Today the city knows we are working desperately to restore Oakland and develop a sustainable plan financially and be good neighbors in the community,” board president Rebecca Todd told me.
Monica’s favorite conversations in recent days have been with people asking how to become part of her “sisters — and brothers — in grime” team.
“That’s the really exciting part, getting more people interested in volunteering,” she said as we discussed the response.
Never has the help been more needed, as the volunteers try to keep the now-cleared grounds tidy. “The grass is growing faster than we can keep up with it,” Monica said.
In addition, recent thunderstorms threw broken tree limbs throughout the property. Another day “Lucy” and “Ethel,” the names bestowed on the cemetery’s two riding lawn mowers, decided anything that could go wrong with their insides would do just that.
“It was a monster of an eight-hour day,” Monica said, especially because she and Tom were also preparing for a burial at a plot purchased more than 40 years ago.
I talked with the two of them as they cooled off and joked about the cemetery’s on-site “margarita machine” — actually an ice chest stocked with Gatorade and water.
As they surveyed the expanse of monument stones, they slipped again into story-telling about the people buried in this special place.
Beloved aunties. Victims of unsolved murders. A Greek fortune-teller. Gordon Conway, a Dallas woman who did illustration and fashion design for movies.
The first firefighter to die in the line of duty in Dallas, a death that occurred in 1902. The family plot where a father sat listening to his radio for his deceased son’s favorite songs. Each time one played, he turned up the volume and the tune wafted across the gravesite.
The story that most haunts me is the one associated with the 1946 burial marker for William Henry McDonald, who records show suffered from a morphine addiction and was shot to death by his father in self-defense.
McDonald’s interment card, among the thousands Oakland volunteers have organized at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, includes this handwritten note on the back: “Father shot drunk son in self-defense but is extremely sorry he killed him. He visits grave often — kissing the mound as he prays, kneeling.”
Monica likes to say, “Every stone has a story.” Preserving these ties to the past and caring for the grounds as families would wish is what keeps Monica and Tom committed to this place.
They are also committed to keeping Rusty safe.
“We welcome visitors, and everyone is welcome to try and catch a glimpse of our Rusty, but don’t invade his space or do anything that would stress him out,” Monica said.
As far as anyone trying to make off with Rusty under the misguided idea he needs a more traditional home, “Good luck with that,” Tom added.
Rusty is not a house pet, they say, despite how gentle he is. The dog keeps his distance with everyone except Tom, Monica and cemetery gatekeeper Armando Gonzalez, whose home is adjacent to the cemetery.
Tom and Monica are certain Rusty is a wolfdog, and Tom is quick to show his favorite Rusty photo — the day the dog lingered at a headstone inscribed with the family name Wolfe.
This is a dog who doesn’t need rescuing — but he does need his privacy and a lot of space. Forty-eight acres seems to work just fine.
10 a.m. March 18: Regular Saturday morning tour.
11 a.m. April 1: Annual picnic and tours, plus lot owners meeting.
Donations and burial space info
Oakland Cemetery Lot Owners Association
P.O. Box 191662
Dallas, Tx 75219-1662
Or visit Oaklandcemeterydallas.com
For information regarding purchasing a burial space, call 214.586.1684.