Tom Kuehner just wanted to play soccer.
But in order to kick the ball around at De Andreis High School, Kuehner, one of nine siblings, had to help pay for his tuition. So in 1973, he applied for a part-time summer job as a groundsworker at Calvary Cemetery, not far from his childhood home in the Walnut Park neighborhood of north St. Louis.
Fifty years later, Kuehner is still there — and he’s loved every moment of his time with Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
After several years of part-time work in the summer and on Christmas and Easter breaks, Kuehner was hired as a groundsman full time in 1976 after high school. He rose through the ranks, moving on to become a lead man, later overseeing all lead men. By 1993, he was promoted to superintendent and foreman. And in 2017, he was named managing director of grounds and facilities, overseeing a staff of 37 workers at 17 cemeteries.
“I’ve been here 50 years, and every day I drive through the front gate, it’s breathtaking. It still looks like a postcard to me,” Kuehner said as he drove his truck through the sprawling 470-acre Calvary Cemetery on a November morning, with many trees still displaying their vibrant fall colors. “It never loses its character.”
Kuehner, a parishioner at St. Joseph in Cottleville, has done everything from cutting grass, maintenance work and digging graves and preparing the graveside for a burial service, to managing crews, handling the details of a charity burial and sometimes interacting with grieving families laying their loved ones to rest.
He brings order to the daily tasks, ensuring that the cemeteries “are maintained as places that ‘whisper hope’ grounded in our faith in the resurrection to eternal life,” wrote Msgr. Dennis Delaney, Catholic Cemeteries’ executive director, when he nominated Kuehner in 2021 for the Cardinal Rigali Service Award.
Other more monumental tasks over the years have included transferring the remains of more than 1,600 Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet from their former cemetery at Nazareth Living Center to Resurrection Cemetery in south St. Louis County in 2009, an effort that took 17-and-a-half weeks to complete. In July, he orchestrated the removal of more than 200 downed or damaged trees, planting of new trees and resetting more than 300 gravestones knocked over after a storm tore through Calvary.
Every bit of the work has been learned on the job. He shares his institutional knowledge — how to properly cut down a dead tree, knowing whether to repair or replace a piece of equipment and even working with the best vendors for purchasing supplies — with the groundsworkers, approaching them as if they were his own sons.
“He’s very understanding and very caring, and he’ll work side-by-side with you,” said Adam Eschbacher, a Calvary groundsman since 2007. “What really made him shine even more than normal was the devastation we had with the storm. He was like a conductor in an orchestra. Everything went perfectly smooth, and we got everything done in a fashionable time. And he worked alongside us.”
Kuehner begins a typical work day at 7 a.m. in the shop building tucked away on the far end of Calvary. Huddled at a table, he’ll announce the day’s tasks to the groundsworkers, telling them which sections of the cemetery they will report to: spray for weeds in section 27, cut down a few trees in section 15 and mulch around the section signs starting in section 9.
After they’ve received their orders, he leads them in praying a Hail Mary. “God bless our families, our friends, our country and the work we do, in Jesus’ name,” he prayed before before dismissing them.
The workers who maintain the cemeteries are doing some of the hardest tasks under all sorts of weather conditions, Kuehner surmised. “For every one bad day, you have 10 good days,” he will tell them. “These are rough and tough guys and they’ve been through a lot.” So it touches him when he hears stories from families who were comforted by one of his crew members.
Years ago, he met a woman whose baby died and was moved by the compassion of a groundsworker at the grave site. “She said, my baby died, and it was the most horrific day of my life,” he recalled. “Nothing touched me more than when the funeral director handed the casket to your worker and he made the sign of the cross.” The worker also later shared a Bible verse with her.
“She said that was more important to her than anything else,” he recalled. “It was a stranger, and she wasn’t expecting that.”
Kuehner will turn 66 this December, and God willing, he plans to stay with Catholic Cemeteries as long as he’s able. “Everybody asks me, when are you going to retire?” he said. “And I say, when they throw dirt on my chest. I pray to God He keeps me healthy, because I love doing what I do.”