Meet the Bostonian-turned-Daytonian in charge of Woodland Cemetery, Sean O’Regan

Credit: Sarah Franks

Credit: Sarah Franks

You might be surprised when you learn that a lifetime Bostonian took very little convincing to move to what he knew as a “flyover” state. All it took was one visit to one of Dayton’s pride and joys — the beautiful Woodland Cemetery.

Sean O’Regan made his first trip from Boston to Dayton 30 years ago on a business trip that amounted to nothing more than grabbing some grub at the Dayton Mall food court. In June of 2012, he returned for an interview at Jimmie’s Ladder 11 that quickly turned into a permanent stay in the Gem City.

Credit: Sarah Franks

Credit: Sarah Franks

O'Regan is a father of three sons, a Miami Twp. resident, the former vice president at Mount Auburn Cemetery, one of the nation's top cemeteries, and now he's the CEO at Woodland Cemetery. For his dedication to one of Dayton's greatest historical assets, O'Regan is our Daytonian of the Week.

>>HOW TO GET HELP: Emergency shelter locations, food and water for those impacted by storms

>>17 things to see at Woodland Cemetery

“When I came here, I really thought I was just coming to get interview practice for a top position,” O’Regan said. “I was just kind of blown away.”

>>HOW TO HELP: Critical need for blood in wake of tornadoes, long holiday weekend in Dayton

O’Regan, a history lover and aficionado above all else, couldn’t have guessed what kind of historical treasure trove he would find in Dayton. Combined with Woodland’s beauty, and maybe even some of the Midwestern friendliness he experienced during his second visit, O’Regan decided to make the move and start his Dayton adventure. Under his leadership, Woodland has grown its educational programs significantly and turned a longtime vision of restoring the cemetery’s original chapel into action. Even more, he’s refocused Woodland’s mission to be the best possible resting place for Dayton’s loved ones.

🌲Tell me about what got you so excited when you first saw the Woodland Cemetery Chapel? 

“When I saw that, at the time it was administrative office space and we talked about the possibility of restoring it back to its beauty. I realized it would be quite a project to do. And the cemetery was hit hard by Hurricane Ike in 2008. For me, being an active cemetery is great, but for me, my real interest is in the history and the arboretum. So when we restore the chapel, it’s going to be fantastic.

In 1904, they did an addition onto the chapel and they redesigned the interior. They hired Tiffany studios to do the work. So all Tiffany windows, a Tiffany mosaic floor. It’s spectacular. We’re in the middle to early stages, but we’ve raised over two million so far. Last time it was used as a chapel was in 1969. ... We won’t put pews back. We’ll put a few of the original pews to give it the original look it had in 1904. But it will be exactly as it looked in 1904. We can do funerals in there, if the community wants to have a meeting, receptions after funerals. We want to create more of a bonding (space) for the property and community. Space that can be used for more than just funeral services. I envision it will be a unique wedding spot as well.”

Credit: Sarah Franks

Credit: Sarah Franks

🌲What was the transition like from Boston life to living in Dayton? 

“There was so much work to do here that it kept me busy. But when I had free time I would get out into the community to learn a little bit.

It was a little slower (paced.) Then I heard the stories of Dayton and its hard times, but I’ve not experienced any of that. I came at the end of June in 2012 and as long as I have been here, it’s been nothing but positive.

I would joke with everybody that the people of Dayton are excessively friendly. Being an ‘East Coaster,’ it took a while to get used to. ... It’s very family-based here. Five o’clock comes and people are like ‘Boom’ I got to get to dinner, I got to get to a soccer game. They have a life outside of work. And that’s good. Dayton is a very easy community to acclimate into. Very nice, there is a tremendous amount of activity here. I actually like the downtown, the food is very good and things are very affordable.”

>>RELATED: BEST OF DAYTON: The best places to get out and enjoy the view

🌲If you're trying to quickly tell someone why Woodland is so wonderful and historically significant, what would you tell them? 

“So Woodland — it really goes back to Dayton. What transpired here in Dayton, especially at the turn of the century. It starts with the birth of flight. I didn’t know the Wright brothers were from Dayton until I moved here.

You look at all the industry that was based right in Dayton. You have Patterson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, you have Deeds. Everybody is here (in Woodland.) You have just other amazing people. And you have the inventor of Cheeze-Its. It just goes on and on. That kind of blew me away when I started reading the history of the people that are here. The overwhelming majority of Dayton’s most influential historical figures are buried here.

Yet it’s also sort of a quaint, quiet town at the same time.

🌲What made you stay in the cemetery business?

"The work environment is rewarding on three fronts and I didn't expect that when I got into it. I was at Mount Auburn Cemetery for six years. When I first got in I was 46 years old. It took a while to get a job there. … They were considered one of the top cemeteries in the country.

Woodland’s position was opening up and they wanted to start building up to do some of the things the top cemeteries in the country were doing. I was just very fortunate. I thought they were just bringing me up for an interview and when the offer came I was surprised.

Somebody (from the East Coast) said, ‘Oh I’ll look down and think of you,’ referring to Ohio being a ‘flyover’ state. I was just thinking everything was going to be flat, but I didn’t expect the way it looked. And I definitely didn’t expect the chapel. The gentleman before me did a fantastic job, he was here about seven years. The plate was set pretty well. It was an opportunity to make an impact.”

🌲What is it like being in charge of a place with so much significance for so many who have loved ones buried here?

“It’s extremely rewarding. It’s challenging. At the beginning and end of the day, we are an active cemetery, entrusted for the care of the dead. … We do about 500 services a year. You got to balance that with my staff that I hired on the educational side. We’re doing about 200 presentations a year now. We were doing about 30 to 40 presentations a year before. I just really wanted to jump start that to get Woodland more well known across ages.

We have Black History Month tours, Women of Woodland tours, the Innovators tour, the Doctors of Dayton tour, Tree Tours — it can go on and on. In the month of October we do our Lantern tours. The first ‘trial’ year, we did three of the Lantern tours and they sold out in the first day. Now we have about 36 scheduled in October.”

🌲Why is the educational component such a priority for you as a CEO? 

“To maintain relevance for the cemetery. It is truly a cultural resource. The relevancy is the big thing because the burial trends and memorial trends are changing. You can go to a beautiful cemetery that is just very restful and quiet, but that’s not Woodland. We are peaceful and tranquil -- but at the same time we are encouraging people to come. The majority of people that want their name on a monument (when they die), they want something that says ‘I was here.’ If you want that, you want people to see it and question (who you were.) That’s why I think it’s important to keep that heritage alive.

We just have a great, caring group of people that understand the mission of the cemetery. I’m biased, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful spots in Dayton.”

🌲What more does a cemetery bring to a community besides a place to lay the dead to rest? 

“The neat part here is we get visitors that aren’t from here, don’t have family here — but they love to walk the grounds, read the monuments, see the history. The Wright brothers get pilots from all over the world visiting here. They say you never die until the last person who knew you dies. So we try to keep it going as long as we can.”

About the Author