There is a great, big hole in Columbia County today.
Bill and Jean Blackard have moved away.
For those of you who just moved to Columbia County " that would be, what, 90,000 of you? " Bill and Jean Blackard are two of the county's most-respected historians, and some of the sweetest folks you'd ever meet.
Bill has helped other people put together history books either through his considerable illustration skills or through his long work with the county's historical society.
Bill and Jean's greatest work, though, is only now coming to fruition " just as they're leaving town.
For about the past six years, the Blackards have been walking through church cemeteries and tromping through woods, meticulously chronicling the location and identification of every single grave in Columbia County " about 7,000 of them.
Their book is almost ready. Bill dropped by the office the other day to show off a printer's proof, and it is incredible. He's drawn quadrants across a county map, and each chapter of the book lists the graves in that quadrant. Some are in massive old church cemeteries, while others are obscure gravesites deep in the woods.
Then, an index in the back gives an alphabetical listing of the name on every grave they've found " though even after six years, Jean says she's sure they haven't found them all.
Worse, they worry that the county's fast pace of development threatens other currently lost sites. For every developer who finds and preserves graves, such as those lovingly kept at the rear entrance of Jones Creek, there is likely another who has inadvertently bulldozed hidden burial sites " or worse, knowingly covered sites to avoid construction slowdowns from red tape.
That worry will have to be taken up by others in the community now. The Blackards on Monday followed a moving van to Memphis, Tenn. Jean has had her share of health problems recently, and at age 76 Bill recently was diagnosed with an incurable bone-marrow disease. They've moved to a retirement home near one of their daughters.
When you get old, you don't have much choice, Jean says. You've just got to go ahead and accept life like it really is.
But if it were up to her, she adds, this would be the last move " 55 years of marriage, 44 of them in the same home near Winfield, leads to the accumulation of a lot of stuff " especially for such history buffs.
Moving is not for old people, Jean says with a laugh. I told Bill, When it's time to move again, it'll be when they carry me out on a stretcher!
Amazingly, as the Blackards relocate to be closer to a daughter, they're moving farther away from Jean's own mother " a healthy 104-year-old who moved to Columbia County from North Carolina in 1914. I think she's going to outlive us all, Jean says with a laugh.
While her mother in great shape, the same isn't true for Bill and Jean. But while the move is best for their health, that doesn't make it easy. It's bad to leave, and it's sad, because you've made so many friends, Jean says.
After spending so many years tracking down the dearly departed, it turns out that the living are the hardest to part from.
I'm not empowered to speak on behalf of anyone but me and the newspaper, and that voice isn't nearly loud enough to shout out the deserved thanks to the Blackards for being such wonderful citizens of Columbia County.
Their friendship to the living, and their respectful service to the dead, has earned them the undying gratitude of our community.
Best of luck to them on their relocation to Memphis. We'll sure miss them.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.