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Column: Grave finding volunteer uncovers history of long-lost friends
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

As a Find A Grave volunteer, Theron Rogers of Gainesville is always running across interesting stories.

Rogers retired from IBM after working for them since they first got into computers. He spends much of his time riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle to cemeteries, taking pictures of tombstones and recording them on the Find A Grave website. It’s an international organization with thousands of volunteers in 244 countries. So, it was no small honor when Rogers was named its volunteer of the month.

He has photographed 338,000 grave markers in more than 1,200 cemeteries in six states, most of which were found in Hall and other Northeast Georgia counties.

Often, he uncovers back stories of the people buried in those graves. 

For instance, he learned about a man who killed four people in Oklahoma and whose sister brought him back to be buried in Dawson County. Another is Benjamin Parks, the guy who started the first gold rush in the U.S. in Lumpkin County and was buried in Yellow Creek Cemetery in Hall. He also uncovered information about the two men who were hanged for killing a store owner in Belton, near Lula. They were buried in the Reynolds-Barton Cemetery close to Dunagan’s Chapel Methodist Church.

But, one story stands out that is personal to him. 

I’ll let Rogers tell it:

“I grew up in a very small town in upstate New York, called Harpursville. We went to an independent Baptist church of about 75-100 people. Missionaries would come to our church from time to time to ask for funding. In 1948, Grace Betty and Bill Cutts, who lived locally, came and told us they wanted to go to teach the Moni tribesmen in the hills of Papua, Indonesia, about Christ.

“My parents decided to help support their work. The Cutts came back home four years later and updated the church on their work, and they also adopted a 1-year-old boy whom they named John Cutts. He turned 2 on the boat going back to Papua with them. So, John, who is now 69, grew up in Papua and has spent his entire life as a second-generation missionary.

“He did come back to the United States for education, college, Bible school, small plane and helicopter training. He married another missionary’s daughter, where they went to college in Nyack, New York. At some point, John and Joy purchased a house with intent to retire some day in Gainesville.

“Grace Betty and Bill Cutts were missionaries in Papua from 1948 until about 1990 when Bill turned 70, and then they moved to Toccoa Falls, Georgia, to teach at Toccoa Falls College. My last thoughts of Grace Betty and Bill Cutts was in about 1954, except that whenever anyone mentioned ‘missionary,’ I always thought of Grace Betty and Bill teaching the native tribes in New Guinea. To me, they were the ultimate missionaries.

“I moved from Harpursville, got married, IBM moved me around the country, and I ended up retiring in Gainesville in 1991. My hobby of photographing cemeteries has taken me in ever increasing circles around Gainesville taking photos in cemeteries. It was while photographing the Toccoa Cemetery that I happened upon the monument for Grace Betty and the Rev. Bill Cutts.

“What a huge surprise to find them in this cemetery. The last time I saw them was 65 years ago in Harpursville, New York. The last I had heard anything from them was when they were in Papua, New Guinea, Indonesia. And now here they were in a cemetery on a hilltop in Toccoa, Georgia.

“Then the second surprise was the baby boy I knew as John, who my sister had babysat, had a home in Gainesville. When I contacted John, he was here in Gainesville for two weeks before going back to Papua. We met the next day to re-establish our relationship. I have since been able to assist John and Joy gather some family history and build a family tree on Ancestry. This includes Joy’s missionary family, who had served in Thailand, and both of John’s biological and adopted families.”

Rogers isn’t surprised at the stories he uncovers while meandering among the graves in the cemeteries he’s discovered. But, to find the final resting place for a missionary family from his former hometown decades later, and then to discover their missionary son and his family had a home in Gainesville, makes his grave finding even more rewarding.


Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, johnnyvardeman@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.

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