Walking with the dead

For Susan Ahlers Leman, the Oakland Cemetery Walk is all about the legacy.

“I’m always in awe of the path people before us took, what they accomplished, and their great generosity that led to the community we have today,” Ahlers Leman said. “Then I start thinking, in 30 years, who will be viewed as making a difference today in 2013?”

The annual cemetery walk will be held Saturday and June 9, and feature 10 interesting characters from Fort Dodge’s past – all buried in Oakland Cemetery.

“Ninety percent of the time we try to be right by the headstone of the person we are portraying,” Ahlers Leman said. “We want them to be close enough that you’re not walking a long way, but far enough to not have voices overlapping.”

Ahlers Leman will portray Anna Ringland, alongside Steve Kersten playing George Ringland.

“It’s fun to do it jointly, because we can play off each other as well,” Ahlers Leman said. “We’re the grandparents of Ann Smeltzer, and built the home now known as the Smeltzer house, which arguably should be known as the Ringland House.”

George Ringland was very involved in the gypsum industry. Anna is interesting to Ahlers Leman because she “was very much into the arts and the culture of Fort Dodge.”

“I care about the arts and I care about the culture of Fort Dodge, and I try to be a philanthropic person,” said Ahlers Leman, “so it’s kind of inspiring to play someone who, definitely on a grander scale, accomplished those things as well.”

Fred Kesten will play WB Swaney, who had a Fort Dodge car dealership in 1919.

“He bought an airplane in 1919, and in 1920 he formed an aircraft company and built the first airfield in Fort Dodge,” Kesten said. “It was east of Memorial Park Cemetery, on the north side of Highway 20.”

The airfield was expanded to 120 acres south of what is now Fifth Avenue South, and three hangers are still there, Kesten said.

Jerry Rowe does the bulk of the research, Ahlers Leman said. The actors get a hodgepodge of newspaper clippings, public records and other published narratives, and pull it together to write their own scripts.

“It’s unlike any acting I’ve ever done,” said Ahlers Leman, “because yes, you’re given the information, but you write it so it’s your voice.”

Kesten explained how they draw a character out of the limited information.

“We add some things, just guessing,” said Kesten. “Like, he would have as a young man seen the invention of the automobile, and the airplane. Over his lifetime he saw it evolve, like the Model T into the Chevy Corvette, and the first Wright brothers’ airplane evolved into a jetliner. So I throw that into my talk.”

Guides will take groups of about 20 people through the cemetery to each performer, who will give an eight-minute presentation. On June 9 a second performance will be held at Iowa Central Community College.