Photo by Jim Massara
The rose garden at Pope Dickson.
Abner Dickson, owner of Pope Dickson Funeral Home in Jonesboro, had a side career — he was a pretty good magician.
He may have saved his best trick for his last act.
Dickson was a master of misdirection, with a show at one time that had “big illusions, lots of assistants,” according to Don Wiberg, former president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
It was certainly no small-time act.
“Abb had a natural comedic presence on the stage,” Wiberg said. “You couldn’t help but laugh, no matter what he did. He had that talent.”
Dickson had the last laugh himself when on Monday he revealed his final misdirection: He kept the memorial rose garden for stillborn babies on Pope Dickson’s Jonesboro property up his sleeve, when everyone thought the bank had taken it away.
Dickson, in failing health and confined to a wheelchair in a Roberta, Ga., nursing home, told the Clayton News Daily Monday that while the Jonesboro building and parking lot are indeed for sale, he still owned the parcel of land at the corner of North McDonough and Watterson streets, where the garden is located.
“I had hoped to donate it to the city,” Dickson said.
His executor, Chip Cleveland, reiterated Dickson’s intentions in a phone interview Tuesday.
“From what we talked about last night, he (Dickson) will donate it to the city if the city would take it,” Cleveland said.
When told of the news, Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day said, “How wonderful!” She added that the city would definitely consider accepting the rose-garden property if presented with a formal offer.
Sale of garden like losing son ‘all over again’
When Pope Dickson closed its doors in May after more than six decades as a pillar in Clayton County, records were packed up, furniture was moved and the sign out front was disconnected. Nobody thought to say what was going to happen to the rose garden, though.
Reports of the apparent sale of Pope Dickson’s Jonesboro location hit Amanda Bartlett of Forest Park like a kick in the stomach. She said it made her feel as if she were losing Preston James, her only biological child, “all over again.” His ashes are in Pope Dickson’s rose garden.
Bartlett said that after Preston was stillborn in 2009 at Southern Regional Medical Center, a midwife told her and her husband that Pope Dickson would do the cremation for free and the ashes could be sprinkled on the rose garden “to make the roses grow.”
“The head nurse said, ‘Oh, we’ve been doing this for years,’ ” said Bartlett’s husband, James Bouler. “It seemed like the best choice.”
Bartlett said she found the garden to be a “comfort,” even after Dickson announced in 2010 at its annual spring memorial service that he could no longer accept stillborns. He told families at the time he couldn’t afford to continue maintaining the garden without help from Southern Regional, which had sent a number of stillborns there.
The problem, according to a long-time Pope Dickson employee with knowledge of the situation, was that Dickson had volunteered the service essentially on a handshake, probably in the 1990s, with nothing in writing obligating Southern Regional to help pay for it.
Bartlett continued to visit the garden twice a month, sometimes just to pick up garbage. A few months ago, Bartlett posted on Southern Regional’s Facebook page to make administrators aware of the garden’s condition, but made little headway.
Finally, when Bartlett realized earlier this month that the ground where her baby’s ashes were spread might be sold to the highest bidder, she started telling everyone she knew about it — including area media outlets.
“I was on the [TV] news within 17 hours of finding this out,” Bartlett said.
Foreclosure affects families
While nothing changed immediately, Bartlett’s rabble-rousing brought the apparent sale of Pope Dickson’s property to everyone’s attention, including the management of Southern Regional, which issued a statement distancing itself from the rose garden and making explicit that “no financial agreement” had been made with the funeral home.
“We extend our deepest condolences and empathize with families affected by the actions of Pope Dixon (sic) Funeral Home,” the statement read.
In fact, although all stillborns memorialized at the garden were somehow connected with Clayton County, not all of them came from Southern Regional.
The ashes of Bo Nunnually, the son of Michelle and Brooks Nunnally, of Locust Grove, came to rest in Pope Dickson’s rose garden after he was stillborn at Atlanta Medical Center. Brooks had grown up in Jonesboro, knew of Pope Dickson’s place in the community, and decided with his wife to send the ashes to the garden. Pope Dickson didn’t charge them a penny for it.
“It’s such an overwhelming experience that they gave us to properly handle the death of our son, and I hate to see that the tradition is going to end,” Brooks Nunnally said.
When Pope Dickson closed for good in May, the property was foreclosed on by Florida-based Bayview Loan Servicing, which first tried unsuccessfully to auction it off and then put it up for sale. The real-estate website Zillow shows that the property at 172 N. McDonough St. can be had for $619,000. Raymond Sans, of Austin Brokerage Co., said that as of last week several parties had shown interest in it.
Meanwhile, Bartlett continued to campaign to save the rose garden by mounting a Facebook page in its support. She also created an online petition begging for its rescue that had been signed by 860 people as of Tuesday afternoon.
But — surprise — the rose garden really wasn’t for sale after all.
The Pope Dickson property on North McDonough Street is actually three separate parcels: the building itself, the parking lot behind it and the corner lot with the rose garden. Each had a separate address, but the legal ad announcing the property’s sale showed only two of those addresses. Sans himself said that the property was being sold “as is,” meaning that whoever bought it would have to have it surveyed according to directions in the ad to see what was actually being purchased.
It turned out that Dickson pulled a sleight of hand and kept the rose garden for himself — which, apparently, not even the bank realized, because its crews were still mowing the lawn around the garden.
When the property will be offered to Jonesboro remains uncertain. Dickson and Cleveland have yet to formally offer the rose garden to the city, and Cleveland said he wasn’t sure when they would.
Until then, Bartlett said, she’s cautiously optimistic.
“I think it’s great if it could be just deeded as a cemetery. That would be amazing,” Bartlett said Monday. “I’m happy that it’s not going to be sold, but I still have to look at its future.”