Posted: Jan. 5, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

At Old Drawyers Church in Odessa, the here-and-now is not nearly as important as the hereafter.

The historic church, built in 1773 in lower New Castle County, has its moments of glory when it is opened for an annual service in June and for weddings and funerals, but its cemetery! That is to die for.

Like the church, the graveyard dates back to the 18th Century and is maintained by the Friends of Old Drawyers, a group of roughly 200 members.

About 30 of them, most of whom could be called old Friends, met for lunch Wednesday at the Wayside Inn in Smyrna, and even though they assembled to honor one of their most distinguished members, former Gov. Sherman W. Tribbitt, and even though Gov. Ruth Ann Minner was there to help them, the prime topic was the cemetery.

"We're all going to be buried there," said Ruth McDowell.

Her husband Robert C. McDowell, who is a cousin of state Sen. Harris B. McDowell III and a nephew of the late Congressman Harris B. McDowell Jr., is so knowledgeable about the cemetery that he drew a part of it freehand on the back of a manila envelope as he discussed it.

Alison K. Matsen, who edited a 1990 book about the church and its grounds, said her sister once suggested at a meeting of the Friends that everyone should go out and stand on the plot where they will be spending eternity.

One of the reasons Tribbitt, a Democrat who served one term as governor from 1973 to 1977, was being recognized was for what he did to ensure there will be resting places for Friends far, far, far into the future.

Tribbitt was the Friends' president when the society in 2003 put the finishing touches on acquiring 9.2 acres of new land for their cemetery -- five acres donated by Bayard Sharp, a du Pont family member who died in 2002, and the rest made available by the state Transportation Department. It is located across from the church between U.S. 13 and Delaware 1.

"We finally have our new piece of dirt across 13," said Douglas J. Bennett, the Friends' new president. "We have Sherman to thank for that."

The old graveyard has something upwards of 600 plots, all of which are expected to be filled within four or five years. The addition will have room for 7,101 plots, according to Robert McDowell.

That is a lot of Friends. McDowell said it was imperative to find more ground to accommodate everyone. "You can't run out of space. If you die, you want to be buried with your family," he said.

Tribbitt's political roots are in Odessa, where he ran a hardware store with his father-in-law and served as a state representative, including a stint as speaker. After he lost the governorship in 1976 to Republican Pierre S. du Pont, he and his wife Jeanne bought a house in Dover. They sold it last year to move to a place in Rehoboth Beach they have owned since 1958.

Tribbitt is 82. He was president of the Friends for 20 years, but it was time, like the New Year, to ring out the old and ring in the new. Bennett, the new president, presented Tribbitt with a white marble plaque that will hang inside the church.

"Governor Sherman W. Tribbitt," it reads. "Friends of Old Drawyers President, 1984-2004."

Minner gave Tribbitt a gubernatorial proclamation recognizing his contributions to Old Drawyers. "I'm sure you've done as many of these as I have," she said.

Minner and Tribbitt, of course, go way back, to the time he served in the state House of Representatives and she was a Democratic attache there. When he became governor, she got a job in his office first as a file clerk and then a receptionist, leaving in 1974 when she was elected a state representative herself, on her way to the state Senate, lieutenant governor and now governor.

Minner did Tribbitt one better, though, getting elected to the second term that he never had. As governors go, Tribbitt called her "the most important one of all that's still living."

It got a huge laugh from the Friends, whose regard for the living seems to have its limits.

Naturally Tribbitt talked about everyone's favorite topic -- the cemetery where he plans to be the second governor there. Walter W. Bacon, a Republican who was the state's chief executive during World War II, is interred on a rise that is known as "Gov. Bacon Hill."

"There is one other governor buried there," Tribbitt said. "When I say buried there, I'm not ready to be buried, even though I recently put up my tombstone."

Spoken like a true Friend.