Tag Archives: Joe Ragsdale

Brothers Leon, left, and Joe Elder and familiar faces at Alumni Work Week.

The Elder brothers, Leon (left) and Joe, are familiar faces at Work Week.

Joe Elder (63C) works in the kitchen during Alumni Work Week, a job that’s reminiscent of his dining hall experience as a Berry student. These days, however, he’s sharing a suite with his wife and brother and whipping up desserts one current student called “life changing.”

Joe and brother Leon (54C) are two of nine children, six of whom attended Berry. Both are Work Week regulars: Leon has participated 14 times over a 20-year span, and Joe has joined him for seven or eight.

“He’s responsible for me being here,” Joe said. “But it worked out great because we get to spend a week together.”

A total of 135 alumni and friends participated this year, including several married couples and sets of siblings. Participants broke into 17 crews and worked on projects all across campus, including the ongoing restoration of Barnwell Chapel.

When they’re not working, the Elder brothers like to “ramble around” campus, Leon said, often driving up to the Old Mill and walking to the reservoir together.

Leon, like Joe, volunteers in food service, lending a hand on the snack wagon crew every year. He loves the opportunity it provides to meet and interact with other alumni.

“We get to work, play and eat around very pleasant people who, even though they have aches and pains, still have a smile on their face,” he said.

Ragsdales at Work Week

Work Week is an annual tradition for Nelda and Joe Ragsdale.

Nelda (64C) and Joe (65C) Ragsdale met as Berry students and married after graduation. More than a half-century later, they welcome the opportunity to return to Berry for Work Week each year. They have attended the event together 21 times since 1997, with Nelda participating one or two years before that.

Joe enjoys learning new things, just like he did when he attended Berry.

“So far I’ve been here 21 years, and I think I’ve done 21 different things,” he said.

Similarly, Nelda has done everything from office work to polishing the cars at Oak Hill. Both expressed an appreciation for the opportunities they’ve had to hear stories from other alumni.

“The early years when we came back, we were some of the youngest,” Nelda said. “Just to hear the stories that others told was a lot of fun.”

By student writer Cassie LaJeunesse; photos by student Matthew McConnell

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Freemantown Cleanup

From left, Gary McKnight (61C), Dr. Jennifer Dickey (77A, 80C) and Dr. Susan Bandy (70C) assist with the Freemantown Cemetery cleanup during Alumni Work Week.

As a teacher at Berry Academy, Gary McKnight (61C, FFS) spent 20 summers roaming the slopes of Lavender Mountain with his bird-dog searching for the historic Freemantown Cemetery. This spring, he helped to clean up and restore the site as a participant in Alumni Work Week.

“I thought it was local lore,” said McKnight, one of approximately 150 alumni and friends who returned to Berry in late May for the annual celebration of Berry’s work heritage. Project sites ranged from the House o’ Dreams high atop Lavender Mountain to the Gunby Equine Center to the grounds of Martha Berry’s famed Oak Hill estate.

At the Freemantown site, McKnight worked alongside project lead Joe Ragsdale (65C), campus preservationist Dr. Jennifer Dickey (77A, 80C) and other alumni to clear briars and debris obscuring the cemetery from view. Freeman family descendants also were on hand to assist with the effort.

The cemetery, which few people are aware exists, marks the site of a once-thriving African-American community established by Thomas Freeman in 1871. Freeman, a blacksmith and Union Civil War veteran, acquired 300 acres of what is now Berry’s mountain campus after his emancipation. He died in 1893, and his wife, Henrietta, and 12 children eventually sold the land to Martha Berry in the years between 1916 and 1926. While the buildings and church have been lost to time, the cemetery remains.

“I never thought it would be up in these trees,” McKnight said, “They’ve grown up in the last 50 years and covered everything.”

Ironically, the trees growing between the graves prevented erosion and helped preserve the cemetery.

Archeologists from the Georgia Historic Preservation Division surveyed the cemetery earlier in the year using ground-penetrating radar. Analysis of that data will help to reveal unmarked graves and determine boundaries for the site. Read more about the survey.

Already, the perimeter fence has been adjusted to incorporate a recently discovered headstone outside the original boundary. A new entrance will be constructed later this summer. Freeman descendants will hold a reunion at the site in August.

Related News: Berry Alumni Work Week reunites roomies; Around Berry photo gallery

By student writer Lauren Higdon

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