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Rod Hayes helped engrave the names of four Alabama coaches at the new Bryant-Denny Stadium entrance in Tuscaloosa. The Trinity man is one of only a few monument engravers in North Alabama, so he travels for work often.
Daily photo by Steve Stewart
Rod Hayes helped engrave the names of four Alabama coaches at the new Bryant-Denny Stadium entrance in Tuscaloosa. The Trinity man is one of only a few monument engravers in North Alabama, so he travels for work often.

Mistakes translate into interesting work

By Patrice Stewart
pstewart@decaturdaily.com · 340-2446

How do you become a monument engraver, and what are the pitfalls?

You watch and learn, said Rod Hayes, 51, who spent his earlier career days in welding, fitting and sandblasting.

After graduating from Lawrence County High School, he attended Calhoun Community College.

“I took drafting — or it took me,” he said.

Then he worked in fabrication shops and at other jobs where he learned welding and fitting work, including 17 years at Bergen-Paterson Pipe Support in Moulton, which supplied piping hangers to nuclear plants before closing. Hayes also started a sandblasting business as a side job in 1988.

One day, lunch with an old friend sparked a career change.

“Harold Gene Cole, who worked for Elliott Funeral Home in Moulton and others later, asked me why I didn’t learn to engrave tombstones,” Hayes recalled. “He said when he needed one done, he had to get a guy to come out of Tennessee, and that might take three or four months.”

Self-taught

Hayes didn’t know much about engraving stone, but he went to Elberton, Ga., “where they’re sitting on granite,” and watched and learned at Star Granite.

“Then I came home and started practicing on some old pieces of polished granite I’d picked up in Elberton,” he said. “Some of it you just have to learn as you go and use your imagination. There’s not a school anywhere around that turns out people doing this.”

He remembers when he got his first call to engrave a tombstone.

“It was March 26, 1997 — I remember because I got married on March 28, 1997, so that was a wild and crazy week. And I would never have believed how much work was out there,” Hayes said.

“Come to find out, there were funeral homes and monument companies all over the place that needed somebody to do this.”

Hayes said his work generally involves adding lettering to an existing item, such as adding the death date to a marker in a cemetery that already has the names on it.

“I can go to the cemetery and match the lettering up, or have a stencil pre-made and do the lettering there on site, rather than pull the stone up and carry it somewhere to work on it,” he said. “You’ve got to have imagination and a bit of artist in you, I guess, because sometimes you just have to use your judgment and wing it.”

Mistakes

Monument engraving can have some interesting twists.

“Sometimes people want the equivalent of the Preamble of the Constitution put on something,” he said.

Hayes always makes sure several other eyes proofread his stencils before they are carved in stone. He recalls spending one Thanksgiving Day, when traffic was light, fixing a name someone else had misspelled on a courthouse monument.

Some people, he said, “outsmarted themselves” when they had their monuments pre-engraved with the death date 19— and then lived longer than they thought and into the 21st century. He has filled in a lot of those 19s and recut the granite or other stone with new numbers.

“I’ve had to take care of a few of those divorce situations, too,” he said, where a couple divorced after their names were etched in stone, and his job was to eliminate the lettering with techniques like sandblasting.

“You always have to be careful, because one disgruntled family member might call you to do something other family members don’t want done,” Hayes said.

In his leisure time, Hayes spends time with his wife, Bridgett, and twin daughters Allie and Hannah, who are almost 6.

Theater hobby

But he also has a hobby where, he said, his lines “are not carved in stone.” Acting and theater work provide him with an outlet, and he has had roles in plays such as “Simp and Kate” and others for Backstage Theatre Co. in Decatur. You can catch him playing the basketball coach at 2 p.m. Sunday in the final performance this weekend of “High School Musical” at the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts.

“Rod knows everybody and every back road and can tell you how to find any place,” said Backstage Theatre director Darren Butler.

‘Simp McKee’

“And he’s the one who did all my cemetery research for ‘Simp and Kate,’ finding out it was ‘Simp McKee’ on a tombstone in a family cemetery near Guntersville, not ‘McGhee,’ and just got changed as things were handed down through the years,” Butler said.

Hayes plans to pay his respects to the late Decatur riverboat captain W.S. McKee by cleaning his tombstone.

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