Local tombstone is found on a Water Department outing
It started out just like any other day. Gary LeVa took off from his home in Watsonville and went to work for the City of Santa Cruz Water Department. Oftentimes, his days are spent crunching along gravel and hiking through grass, trying to find hidden water meters to read, replace or maintain. Over the years working in this business, he’s found all sorts of hidden treasures on job sites—spiders, pennies, bottles and the like. But this day in December 2010 was a very different type of day, with a very different finding. On this day, he was sent up to the Graham Hill area for a maintenance call on a water meter.
He started digging around in the dirt on the road near a telephone pole. Down the street was a home. “I got my stick and I heard this thud, and it didn’t sound right, so I started moving the dirt,” LeVa says. At the time, it was baffling because he figured this was where the water meter would be, but whatever was under the ground didn’t sound at all like a meter. As he continued to kick aside more dirt he was able to make out some letters. “This isn’t right,” he says about searching for the meter. But with an “aw heck, why not” approach, he continued to dig and soon realized it wasn’t a meter—it was a tombstone.
“I stuck my bar under it, lifted it up, and dug around it,” he says. When he lifted it up he found a flattened coke can from the early ’60s or ’70s. According to the writing on the tombstone, the deceased, Norbert C. Mihelitch died in 1966, so LeVa presumed the tombstone, and its flattened coke can underneath had been sitting there for nearly a half a century.
The two-feet by 14-inch wide, by seven-inch thick rock weighed about 125 pounds. “I’m a treasure hunter, an urban archaeologist,” LeVa says about his finding. And so, he couldn’t help but wonder: What was it doing there? It certainly didn’t belong on the side of a road. So he put it in his truck and sat with it through January and tried to figure out the story behind it, how it got there, who was Mihelitch, and what in the world he was going to do with the tombstone. He figured the most important thing was to get the memorabilia to a descendant of the deceased.
And so he began his journey. At first he started with Parks and Recreation as he was told someone there might have knowledge of local gravesites. His contact there referred him to the Museum of Art & History. They referred him to the Santa Cruz Library where he talked to someone in the genealogical department. That person worked on tracking down information, and then referred LeVa to Bob Nelson, a local who deals with genealogical research with veterans. A call came in from the library suggesting that he try the Holy Cross Cemetery as there were some names there that matched the tombstone. LeVa visited the cemetery and found a family plot for Norbert C. Mihelitch and some of his relatives. What he realized at this point was that the tombstone that he had discovered was an extra tombstone of sorts, given as a military honor when someone dies. So, in essence Norbert C. Mihelitch had two gravestones. One at Holy Cross, and the other was the one that LeVa found. Upon further research, he was eventually put in touch with Mark Mihelitch of Walnut Creek, the grandson of Norbert.
“I was bouncing up and down like a little kid at Christmas,” says LeVa about the phone call with Mark. “I wanted to give it back, and with the things he said, I knew it belonged to his family.”
It won’t be long before Mark picks up the tombstone from LeVa in Watsonville, where LeVa has been keeping it safe for the Mihelitch family. As for how it showed up in the Graham Hill area, that’s another story all together and one that no one quite knows the answers to. “I think it was in the yard of my cousins who used to live in that neighborhood,” Mark says. He’s guessing that when his grandfather died that the military-issued gravestone went to members of his family. “Fast forward 45 years and I get this call,” Mark says.
Mark was about 7 when his grandfather Norbert died, and he had fond memories of spending time at Norbert’s home as a child. “I want to make sure we do the right thing,” Mark says, of honoring his family, his grandfather, and this tombstone. It’s a lovely story, written in stone.