By Stefanie Jackson – When Eastern Shore folks on social media raised more than $1,000 in less than 24 hours to buy a headstone for a beloved community member who died seven years ago, Ritchie Turner wasn’t one bit surprised.
“I knew it before I even did it,” he said of the outpouring inspired by the Facebook post he shared about the late Mason Durham, who was a custodian at Bloxom Primary School, where Turner and several friends attended school around the early 1990s.
Turner, who cuts grass at several cemeteries on the Shore, was working at Wessells Cemetery in Mears the Wednesday before Memorial Day weekend, and he couldn’t help but notice the temporary grave marker that was still there where Durham was buried years ago.
Turner admired “everything about him.” He declined to narrow down his best memories to just one.
Durham and his wife, Rosalie Durham, both were custodians at Bloxom Primary, and they lived in a house right across the street from the school. Both buildings, though rather worse for wear, still stand.
Another former student of the Bloxom school, Meghan Tucker, who grew up in Parksley and now lives in Fairfax County, Va., shared some of her favorite memories of Durham.
One day after lunch, “I went to dump my tray and accidentally threw away a spoon (they used regular silverware),” Tucker wrote.
“I immediately started crying because at six years old, I thought ‘silverware’ was made of real silver and I couldn’t afford to replace the tossed spoon.
“Mr. Durham was in the lunchroom and walked up to me asking what happened. Between sobs I told him I threw the spoon away. He quietly bent down and unhooked the front of the trash cabinet and reached in – easily grabbing the rogue spoon.
“He held it up and said, ‘See? Just like magic!’”
Tucker also recalled waiting outside for her parents to pick her up after school, sitting on one of the wide concrete railings that sloped down both sides of Bloxom Primary’s front steps.
Durham “would stand nearby and say, ‘Don’t fall now. You’ll bump your head!’” Tucker remembered.
Then Durham and his wife would wave goodbye to the children on the school bus as it drove away.
George Hope also remembered the Durhams waving to the departing students in the afternoon. He attended Bloxom Primary, where his great-grandmother was a cafeteria manager. The Durhams were family friends.
Thanks to his family’s relationship with the Durhams, Hope knew that Rosalie Durham was still living and had moved to the Shore Health & Rehabilitation Center in Parksley.
He contacted Durham to ask her if any plan had been made to purchase a headstone for her husband. There wasn’t, and she was “delighted” to hear of the former Bloxom Primary students’ idea.
Hope remembered Mason Durham as a “super nice guy” who loved antique cars, and Hope wanted to get Durham “the recognition he deserves.”
Tucker got the green light to start a GoFundMe page to raise the money to buy Durham’s headstone.
The group worked quickly. Turner had posted the photo of Durham’s temporary grave marker on Facebook on Wednesday around noon. Within an hour or two, Tucker’s GoFundMe page was live. By midnight, about $900 was raised.
When Tucker awoke Thursday morning, she discovered $1,025 had been donated. She ended the fundraiser after she learned the headstone would cost $900.
A double headstone was chosen to include the names of both Durhams, and the remaining donations will be spent on flowers for the gravesite and for Rosalie Durham.
“Everybody wanted to help out. It was so, so great,” Tucker said. Mason Durham was “so kind to everybody on the Shore” – and it appeared that many people wanted to return that kindness.
It was a group effort that started with the trio of former schoolmates and extended to the Eastern Shore community both online and in the real world, including a local funeral home, florist, and others.
“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Turner said. “What a beautiful place we live in.”