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Decades maintaining Manhattan’s cemeteries, history

By Brady Bauman

Mike Mohler’s father told him something as a kid that has stuck with him to this day.

His dad, handicapped at 21 years old because of a stroke, passed on some advice about employment.

“He always told me, ‘I don’t care if you flip hamburgers, but be the best hamburger-flipper you can be,’” Mohler recalled recently near the entrance of Sunset Cemetery.

“I’ve always kept that in the back of my head.”

Mohler didn’t end up behind a grill or directing drive-through food orders. Instead, he’s taken that work philosophy to the grave — so to speak.

Mohler is Manhattan’s sexton, or cemetery manager, and it’s a job he’s had since 1989.

Overall, Mohler has worked for the city of Manhattan for 34 years and manages both Sunrise and Sunset cemeteries.

Combined, these cemeteries measure more than 125 acres, with Sunrise the larger at 80 acres.

Mohler, who grew up in Alta Vista and graduated from Junction City High School, worked his way through the city’s forestry department for nine years before the city sexton job opened up.

“I was just looking for a job,” Mohler said. “I saw the opening for the (forestry) job and went for it.

“Most sextons you’ll talk to come from a park or maintenance background, and they either like it or they hate it. Obviously, I like it.”

In his time running the cemeteries, Mohler said he’s met people from many walks of life and gets a glimpse of Manhattan history every time he walks through the grounds.

Many prominent Manhattan people are buried in them, after all.

The fourth governor of Kansas, Nehemiah Green, who asended to the office in November of 1868 after the previous governor, Samuel Crawford, resigned to join the military, is buried in Sunset.

So is Amanda Arnold, who lived from 1837 to 1923 and is believed to be the first teacher in Manhattan history.

Some markers are flush with the ground, while others tower toward the skies. Some monuments note Civil War participation. Others mark Medal of Honor winners.

Across the grounds are also family names etched in stone that many Manhattan residents would find familiar, such as “Kimball” and “Wareham.”

Mohler said cemeteries are evolving, too.

Both Sunrise and Sunset cemeteries take advantage of Google Maps technology. Using the cemeteries’ website through the city, one can find names of those buried using the “Online Grave and Lot” locator via any device with a screen and an Internet connection.

Because of the inherent history in a cemetery, Mohler said he’s met plenty of historians throughout the years.

“We get people from all over the country coming to Manhattan looking up family history,” he said. “(Things like that) keep me here. You hear a lot of interesting things.”

Some people are wary of cemeteries, while others may have a supernatural “Halloween” perspective of them.

Mohler shares neither of these feelings.

“I’ve never seen a ghost,” he said. “If people do see them, they’re not going to tell me, because we don’t allow people in here at night – we’re closed. But I’ve never been spooked.

“My biggest fear is someone coming in and vandalizing something. But I’m not a ghost believer. There’s people who believe in them. I can’t disregard it, but I’m not looking for them.”

Mohler, who married his wife, Carol, in 1981 and lives across the street from Sunset Cemetery, said he’d often hear stories from his daughters, Erin and Melisa, who are now grown.

Manhattan High School borders Sunset Cemetery to its south.

“My kids would come home from high school and they’d come home with these weird stories about catacombs under the cemetery,” he said. “And I’d have to tell them, ‘There’s no catacombs under the cemetery.’”

Mohler said Manhattan has always been home to him, and he’s found plenty of happiness working for the city, helping residents through their losses and raising a family in the Little Apple.

“Manhattan, this area, it’s God’s country,” he said. “There’s no other way to explain it. We have trees, we have lakes, we have farms, the Flint Hills… We’ve got everything.

“Why would anyone want to leave?”

He also said the state of a city’s cemeteries is a good indication on the quality of the city itself.

“With my family, that’s the first place we go when we go to a town is the cemetery,” Mohler said. “You can tell by the cemetery how the community is, and how the cemetery is taken care of, in most cases. I hope that’s what we give off in Manhattan – that someone may say, ‘They’re proud of their cemeteries, so they’re proud of their town.’”

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