Joe Oreskovich crawled out of his box and looked down the littered street. His thoughts ran together and traveled nowhere, stopping only to consider where he could get another rock of crack cocaine.

It was 1989 and Oreskovich had lost his career, his marriage and his will to live a sober life. Today, firefighters from across the state will come together with lawmakers as the state officially honors firefighters by dedicating a $3 million memorial park to public safety officials in College Park. Organizers say Oreskovich made it happen.

But few of the hundreds of people who will celebrate with him this morning at the state capitol and then follow him in a parade of fire engines to Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens will know of the long road Oreskovich has traveled to today's realization of a seven-year dream. Oreskovich called the littered street home for a year when a group of strangers in uniform walked up to Oreskovich's box on Boulevard in Atlanta in 1989.

"It was cold," Oreskovich recalls. "Really cold that night." His box was near the Moreland Avenue intersection. The federal penitentiary was a few miles down Boulevard, and always I the back of Oreskovich's mind. "That's where I was headed next. No doubt about it." Oreskovich grew up in San Francisco. In 1966 he was drafted into the Army. After serving a two-year stint at Fort Gordon, he decided to stay in Atlanta. When he left the Army, he landed a job in insurance, fell in love, got married, then discovered the wonders of alcohol. 

That night in 1989, the group of firefighters gathering around him invited him inside and fed him a warm plate of spaghetti. They talked to him about God, faith and responsibility. He told them how a few drinks exploded into binge alcoholism and how he had exchanged a constant drunken haze for cocaine's numbing blur. "my mind was so foggy then it is hard to know exactly who said what," Oreskovich recalled last week. Oreskovich can't remember what month it was, only that it was winter and he was afraid to go to a homeless shelter because he was wanted by the police.

In the following months, the visits continued and Oreskovich began to form relationships for the first time since he had crawled into his box. "They told me about something I had never heard about before - Jesus Christ," Oreskovich said. "They returned hope in my life. That hope is Jesus." Oreskovich still doesn't like to talk about his crimes. He'll only say they were non-violent felonies prompted by his cocaine addiction. The firefighters talked Oreskovich into turning himself in to DeKalb County police. He received his divorce papers while in jail.

After he served his time behind bars, the firefighters talked Oreskovich into getting a job at a nearby Taco Bell. "It was $4.25 an hour, but it was something I could be proud of," he said. "I was building my reputation back. Coming back the right way, the only way." He also entered a recovery program, where he spent two and a half years. He still attends weekly alcoholics anonymous meetings. "I'll always be in recovery. It is who I am, nothing but an addict," Oreskovich said. 

While working at Taco Bell, Oreskovich thought about ways to repay the firefighters he credits with saving his life. "You hear about how they rushed into a burning house to save a baby or something like that, but rarely do you hear stories about how they help people in their community when there isn't a fire," Oreskovich said. "And these guys have to work two jobs to pay the bills. Society repay them by throwing them the crumbs." Three years after he decided to start over, an idea came to Oreskovich. He thought often how the firefighters taught him about salvation through the resurrection of Jesus. "It started in an entombment, didn't it?"

Oreskovich would attend the funerals of firefighters and law enforcement officers, even those he didn't know personally, to pray for their souls. He noticed that people who served in public safety almost never planned ahead for their own deaths. He saw first-hand the strain that left on their families. "It is true, especially with the younger guys, they are forced to deal with death every day, but it is always someone else's death. After that, you don't want to think about yourself that way," said Riverdale Fire Chief Alan Shuman.

So Oreskovich started visiting cemeteries, trying to pitch his idea for a memorial park to honor the lives of public safety officers. Three years later, he made his way into the officers at Forest Lawn in College Park. "It took a lot of time, but I wasn't going to take no for an answer," Oreskovich said. Jack Gladwell, Forest Lawn's owner, had seen a similar memorial garden for war veterans turn into an impressive section of his cemetery. Oreskovich sold him on the idea, but Gladwell wanted to know how he could sell it. "I dedicated my life to it," Oreskovich said. "I bet 97 percent of all firefighters don't have wills. I help them get wills. I don't always want to call their families and talk about this stuff after they die." 

Oreskovich has spent the past three years as Forest Lawn's Public Service program director. He spends nearly every day traveling Georgia to fire stations and police headquarters preaching to men and women about preparing for death. When he first approached firefighters at Station 10 with his plan to honor them, they laughed and nicknamed him "Gravedigger." The name has stuck. Even the business cards he hands out to police officers and firefighters identify him as "Joe Gravedigger." "Ask anyone about Joe Oreskovich and they won't know who you're talking about," said Clayton County Fire Capt. C.L. Sealey. "But go to any fire station and ask abut "The Gravedigger" and everyone will know who you're talking about."

Today, two granite pillars stretching about 10 feet in the air stand sentry at the far end of the 3-acre Garden of Peace Public Safety Memorial Park at Forest Lawn. Every name of every firefighter and police officer killed in the line of duty in Georgia's history is etched in the stone columns. In the center of the park, a golden sword sticks out of a plowshare, symbolizing a biblical passage about where peace can be found. 

The Garden of Peace, Oreskovich boasts, is the only memorial park in the nation dedicated solely to public safety officials. Public safety officers killed in the line of duty and their families receive free burial plots there. Today, hundreds are expected to gather there to pay tribute to the more than 1,000 Georgia firefighters killed in the line of duty. "No doubts, this is the Gravedigger's thing. He was the driving force behind bringing all of this together. He made it happen for us," Shuman said Thursday, the day before fire chiefs from across the state came to Atlanta to put finishing touches on plans for today's ceremonies. "Gravedigger is persistent," Sealey said. "It is hard to imagine how much is going to come out of all of this. Bringing all the different fire departments together like this is going to have a lasting impact in a lot of ways."

Behind the park, Oreskovich stood last week in a field of grass and gazed down at two small fishing ponds. "This is a place they can go to get away from it all. I know it is a little weird to ask them to take their families behind a cemetery for a picnic," Oreskovich said. "But when I bring them here, they see this can be so great. I see this as a place for them to play softball with ponies for their children to ride." 

While walking last week atop the Bible passages inscribed in the cement paths stretching through the park. Oreskovich stopped to pause at the grave of Darryl Rousseau, one of the first firefighters buried in the park. An Atlanta fireman from a family with a long history of service stopped to pause at the grave of Darryl Rousseau, one of the first firefighters buried in the park. An Atlanta fireman from a family with a long history of service as firemen, Rousseau was 32 years old when he died in a motorcycle accident last year.

Rousseau was one of the men who invited Oreskovich into Station No. 10 that cold night in 1989. "His family is so beautiful. Every time his little girls comes here and thinks about her father, she will always remember how much he was loved. This is my ministry back to them," Oreskovich said, later adding, "I don't have anyone but my fire and police family."


Click HERE to view a slide show of the event!

Dream of a gravedigger
By Jim Rainey
Clayton News/Daily

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