Michigan man sculpts eternal love for wife in stone

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News


Jim and Marie Wisnewski have visited cemeteries all over the world.

They loved how the graveyards gave a glimpse into a community’s past, Jim said. Each headstone was like a page in a history book.

When Marie died in April, Jim wanted to do something special. An artist, he wanted to fashion his own farewell after 53 years of marriage. He wanted to make the gravestone.

The search for the right rock covered 1,600 miles. His sculpting filled the summer. He could work just a few hours at a time before being overcome with grief.

After four months, it was done. The flat quartzite stone is five feet long and shaped liked an Indian arrowhead.

Besides the dates of birth and death, it lists the date of the couple’s marriage inside a heart. A ceramic plate shows a photo of the couple.

The 400-pound valentine sits in a small cemetery behind an elementary school where the couple’s children went and now grandchildren attend.

“I knew she would appreciate it,” Wisnewski said. “It was a labor of love.”

Wisnewski, 75, with a shock of gray hair and a bushy beard, often gets emotional as he recounts the years with his wife. Theirs is a love story — told through gravestones.

They attended Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids but didn’t meet until just before graduation in 1960, Wisnewski said. He was chairman of the decorating committee for a dance when he spied a stunning redhead at a meeting. She was happy, nurturing, quick-witted.

Enlisting her help, he brought red sheets of cardboard to her home so she could cut them in the form of Cupid.

“That’s how we met. Cupid brought us together,” he said.

They were married three years later. By the time he graduated from college, they had two children. Six more would follow.

He taught art and religion at Catholic Central for 40 years. During his off hours, he flitted from one art project to another.

She was a homemaker who held the burgeoning brood together.

“She weathered the creative storm that is my dad with patience and grace,” said a daughter, Lisa Nawrocki.

The couple were rarely apart.

They watched television together as he drew and she crocheted. He accompanied her on jaunts to Kohl’s while she tagged along on trips to Menards.

They rarely left each other’s side during art shows, the Polish festival, and family picnics and Christmas parties, said Alicia Barnaby, a cousin.

“I can’t ever remember seeing Jim without Marie,” she said. “They did this together, everything together.”

The Wisnewskis loved to travel, first in the United States and then, when the kids were grown, all over Europe.

And no trip was complete without a sojourn to a cemetery.

They visited hundreds, from the World War II crosses in Normandy to John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame in Arlington National Cemetery to the papal tombs below St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

They set stones on above-ground vaults in Jerusalem, placed flowers at a tiny plot in Wadowice, Poland, where Pope John Paul II was born, and at a Civil War-era cemetery in Harvard, Mich., watched a memorial service performed by people in Union uniforms.

Other cemeteries they would stumble across accidently and couldn’t resist the urge to visit.

“They’re fascinating,” said Wisnewski. “To me, they’re like history books.”

During a 1982 trip, the Wisnewskis took all eight children camping in Alaska. They were stuffed into an old, eight-door Checker Aerobus, which also lugged a tool box to adjust the brakes while crossing the Rockies.

During their five weeks of sleeping in a tent, the family visited many sites, including an Indian burial ground.

Avid rock collector

In April, a seemingly healthy Marie fell ill and died the next day. She suffered a brain aneurysm. She was 75.

Reeling from the shock, Jim suddenly needed to make arrangements to bury his wife.

He recalled a trip the couple had taken to a cemetery in downtown Grand Rapids in the 1990s. They came across the grave of John Ball, an 18th-century pioneer. It was marked by a simple boulder with Ball’s name etched into it.

Marie, an avid rock collector, loved how natural the memorial was. An avid rock collector, she told Jim she wouldn’t mind something similar when she passed.

“We didn’t need fancy stuff, a fancy car, a fancy home,” he said.

The couple’s children joined the search for a fitting stone.

The youngest, Tom, 40, was confident about finding one during an upcoming bear-hunting trip to northern Saskatchewan. He had been there a year ago, and the area was teeming with rocks, he said.

During the May excursion, he enlisted the help of his two high school buddies, the guide and the fellas at the next hunting camp. On the fourth day, they found the rock sitting atop a hill off the road to their camp.

“We had found a bunch that were kind of good, but that one looked perfect,” Tom said.

He said he had bagged a 275-pound bear, but that was nothing compared to trying to get the rock into the pickup. It took five people to lift it.

He was worried about crossing the border with the rock, but the Border Patrol agents didn’t give it a second look. They were more interested in ensuring the hunters were licensed.

Labor of love

Jim, whose middle name is Valentine, had made things for Marie his whole life, but this was different. This had to be a worthy goodbye.

He traced an outline of the rock on a long sheet of paper and hung it in his home. He cut out letters of various sizes and moved them around the paper.

Ready to start engraving, he hoisted the stone by throwing a chain over the limb of a tree next to his driveway.

Gravestone makers told Wisnewski they prefer granite or marble because of their consistent texture. But quartzite is trickier. Some spots are hard and others soft.

Wisnewski had to use hand tools, including a rotary grinder, as he painstakingly carved the letters. The hardest part was drilling holes to insert a plaque containing the dates of birth and death. The rock was so hard it wore out drill bits. Wisnewski said he had to use diamond-tipped ones.

It was a lot of work but helped him deal with his loss, he said.

“It was a good outlet, I guess, a good way of getting some of the grief out,” Wisnewski said.

The gravestone isn’t Marie’s only memorial.

She was an inveterate gift giver, dispensing afghans, baby blankets, pot holders and bed booties she had knitted or crocheted, friends said.

Some folks have a gift shelf or gift closet. Marie had a gift room to hold her prodigious production.

The room holds enough bounty to ensure that every Wisnewski — the eight children, the 13 grandkids, the 12 assorted relatives — will receive a present from Marie on Christmas.

The thought of his wife continuing to live on through her generosity made Jim smile.

“All the love that’s around, that’s what holds you up,” he said. “It pays dividends, especially at times like this.”