Originally created 05/07/02

Society leader stirs dispute



SAVANNAH - Laurel Grove Cemetery - the resting place of seven Confederate generals and 1,400 soldiers - has birthed its own battle of wills.

At the center is Colin Young, an Atlanta native with a temper, who five years ago took over the society that cared for the historic city cemetery on Savannah's westside. Former members likened it to a "coup," forced with threats, intimidation and a small pistol several members say he frequently carries with him.

Prominent Savannah residents left the Society for the Protection of Laurel Grove in droves rather than fight the change in leadership, citing a fear of confrontation.

Some still stay away from Laurel Grove North, where Juliette Gordon Low, Confederate hero Francis Stebbins Bartow and Jingle Bells composer James Pierpont are laid to rest.

"None of us will go back, and it's tragic because we have family buried there," said Neil Robinson, a former society member who said he had a run-in with Mr. Young during a visit to the family lot a few years back. "It's a fear of confrontation. He's such an unknown quantity that you just don't know how serious it could get."

Membership, which once surpassed 200, has dropped to seven. The group's regular speaker series and quarterly newsletters no longer exist. The city's director of cemeteries said society members once turned out nearly every weekend to pull weeds and restore monuments. Now, he said, it exists primarily for its Lantern Tour - an annual program that tells the story of some of the cemetery's buried through re-enactors.

"They are not doing a lot more than that now," City Cemeteries Director Jerry Flemming said. "They used to do more hands-on work back then."

MR. YOUNG SAYS the society is succeeding and that much of the criticism directed at him and the group is rooted in jealousy. Anyone is welcome to join the group, he and other board members say, but introduce them to work and they likely won't return.

"This is insanity. Are they saying I eat babies, too?" Mr. Young said. "I'm really tired of this whole thing. We do our thing. We contribute to the upkeep of the cemetery."

Some former members and those close to them have urged the city to step in and do something. But Mr. Flemming and other officials have stayed largely out, aside from meeting with Mr. Young in 1998 to question tour material that officials said "frightened" participants and made them "uncomfortable."

This is a private nonprofit group, Mr. Flemming says, and the city has no right to become involved in its affairs. "Whether it's called the Society for the Protection of Laurel Grove or the Girl Scouts of America, it's all the same to us. Nobody is given any special privilege," he said.

But Mr. Young and his small band of followers have access that others do not. They have keys to the main cemetery gate and a stone holding vault where they store equipment and cemetery artifacts they fear grave robbers might steal. Once Mr. Young moved a pair of bronze chairs taken from the Groover family vault to the courtyard of the Jones Street home where he once lived. At the time, he said it was for restoration and safekeeping, but other members feared they might never come back.

Mr. Flemming made him return the chairs to Laurel Grove.

"We've got it all back now," Mr. Flemming said. "There's been a change of philosophy since the 1990s. We're more sensitive to historical artifacts now."

THE SOCIETY FOR the Protection of Laurel Grove was founded in 1992 by Hugh Gol-son, an educator and historian with more than a dozen ancestors buried in the cemetery. He is a descendant of the Stiles family, whose Springfield Plantation once sat on Laurel Grove land. The cemetery, with its Gothic vaults and grand monuments, was beautiful but overgrown and in disrepair in the early-1990s. Theft was common.

Mr. Golson's goal was to involve families with ancestors buried in Laurel Grove, though anyone was welcome to join. Descendants, the thinking went, would have a stronger bond with the cemetery and more of an interest in caring for it.

Mr. Young joined Mr. Gol-son almost from the start. Former friends say he knows a lot about 19th century burial practices and Civil War history. He can be charming and well-spoken, they said, and he won many friends.

"It started out as a very congenial group," said former society member A.W. Neely Jr. "Then things gradually changed. He started this class warfare thing - Colin and his group against the old Savan-nahians who were running things."

Mr. Young's "takeover" was staged in 1997 at the society's board meeting at St. John's Episcopal Church. At his side were Hugh Bauer, a longtime friend, and Karen Osvald, who is the chairwoman of the society. They wanted to force members to work at the cemetery, according to accounts. Others said that was unreasonable.

Mr. Golson saw the beginning of a battle, and resigned rather from the society rather than fight. Like others, he declined to speak about his experience with Mr. Young, citing fear of reprisal.

"I felt it was better if I got out of the way," is all Mr. Golson would say.