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Knute Rockne grave caretaker looks for replacement

Sylvsester Cashen, 85, has been caring for Knute Rockne's grave for years. // WSBT 22 photo

Winter’s cold lifted for a February afternoon, and the sunshine reflected off 85-year-old Sylvsester Cashen’s glasses.

“Call me Cash,” he said. Cash gestured toward a monument for Knute Rockne, nestled at the crossroads of Highland Cemetery in South Bend. Most people, he said, thought Rockne was buried there, but the legendary Notre Dame football coach wasn’t.

“He didn’t want a big hullabaloo thing to do,” said Cash, who pointed toward another headstone. “He just wanted to be.”

Rockne was buried in the South Bend cemetery alongside his family members. His headstone is a simple stone block, labeled “Father” with his name beneath it.

One month separated Rockne’s death and Cash’s birth. Rockne died in a plane crash at age 43.

Cash has cared for Rockne’s headstone for decades, even though he never met the man. He’ll tell you no one asked him to do it, and no one paid him for his work either.

“I called him the father of the coaches,” said Cash. “Because to me - he was.”

Cash spent several hours a day, a couple times each week gardening around the Rockne family headstones. He laid bricks, planted flowers, and even roped off an area so that graveyard crews wouldn’t touch it.

He put stakes out, he would tell you, and told people: “stay out of it.”

People listened to Cash’s demands and for years, he not only fostered relationships with workers at the cemetery but also cemetery visitors.

Cash recalled on Notre Dame home football weekends, that people would roam around looking for Rockne’s grave.

“I would say, ‘I’m the guy, we’ll take you there,’” Cash said.

But on this particular February afternoon, Cash stared at Rockne’s headstone. The grass has started to fill in the area around the headstone, the flowers had died and a lone bottle of liquor sat next to Rockne’s grave.

“I’m ashamed of myself because I haven’t been out here,” said Cash.

It’s been more than a year since Cash has returned to Highland Cemetery. Back pain has kept him away.

“I got this sciatic in my spine, and when it acts up, I got to quit work,” said Cash. “Got to stand up because it makes you stand up.”

But Cash doesn’t just come to the cemetery for Rockne. His wife, Mara, is buried a few headstones over.

“She suffered, she suffered bad,” he said, pointing to the area where flowers used to grow.

Cash will be buried next to Mara, and near the coach too.

“That made me feel good,” said Cash.

But before he left the cemetery on the warm February day, Cash stopped by the coach’s grave one more time, to talk the coach, something he said he does every time.

“Well I’m here coach. Hope you’re looking down saying thank you,” he paused, holding back tears, “but I say no - thank you.”

Cash, who admitted he can’t take care of the grave like he used to, said he doesn’t know who would be his successor.

If you’re interested in getting in touch with him to care for Rockne’s grave, reach out to Suzanne at sspencer@wsbt.com.

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