Diller thanked for ‘many years of gratuitous and unrivaled service’ to Chester Cemetery

CHESTERTOWN — The Friends of Chester Cemetery board of directors and the friends of John T. “Jack” Diller disproved the theory that only one person can keep a secret.

At a gathering at the centuries-old High Street cemetery on a rainy Sunday afternoon earlier this month to celebrate the completion of a meditation garden — complete with a stone terrace, two memorial benches and newly planted shrubbery — Diller was the only person who didn’t know he was the honoree.

Seated in the front row of chairs positioned under a tent to shield the guests from rain, Diller listened intently as cemetery warden Donnie Stokes listed improvements over the years. It was only when Stokes got to the part about painting the iconic fence at the cemetery’s entrance at 801 High St. that Diller seemed to catch on that this event was mostly about him.

In disbelief, Diller scooted up to the edge of his chair as Stokes, with help from Diller’s daughter Shelly Lepter, pulled away the cloth that was covering an engraved plaque.

The meditation garden is dedicated to Diller “in appreciation for his many, many years of gratuitous and unrivaled service to the Chester Cemetery,” according to the inscription on the plaque.

“You don’t know how much I appreciate this. It’s unbelievable,” an emotional Diller said. “Thank you everybody. I appreciate everybody.”

“It’s always been a labor of love. I never thought about the time or the work. I just kept doing things,” he told the gathering that included the entire cemetery board of directors — Belle Thompson-Warren (president), Katie DiSano (secretary), Maureen Karns (treasurer), Stokes, Trudy Anderson, Ed Birkmire, Nina Burt, Mark Mumford, Julie Slagle and Sis Williams — and several past directors.

In an interview following the formal dedication on May 5, Diller, who is now in his 90s, said he started voluntarily tending to the cemetery more than 30 years ago.

He has spearheaded a number of beautification projects, including planting trees and getting some of the narrow internal lanes paved — as well as the tedious and labor-intensive task of scraping and re-painting the wrought iron fence.

“The grass was as tall as the tombstones when I started. There were dead trees, old shrubbery,” he told The Evening Enterprise. “It boggled my mind why no one was keeping it up.”

In time, Diller said, the work became “a labor of love.”

Chester Cemetery was established in 1862 on land donated by U.S. Sen. George Vickers and his wife, according to the cemetery’s website.

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