1917 - 2003
Will M. Heiser, whose monumental undertaking of a survey of county cemeteries culminated in the publication of Gravesites of Chatham County, North Carolina in 2002, died in Durham on Thursday, 9 October 2003. He was 86.
Will and his wife Audrey moved to Chatham County in the early 1980s. They helped reactivate the Chatham County Historical Association in 1988 and volunteered to organize an inventory of gravesites as part of a statewide program administered from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. Will set up a plan and called for volunteers throughout the county to identify cemeteries and to record data from tombstones. He checked deeds to verify locations and ownership of land; he consulted cemetery inventories that had been prepared by others from the 1930s on; he confirmed information in published family histories. Will frequently visited reported locations to verify gravesites, though at least once he reported, “Hard to locate in the brambles.”
From record cards completed for each gravesite (many of which were filled out by Audrey Heiser from lists prepared by a faithful group of volunteers), Will set up a database and kept it current. After twelve years he had accumulated over 500 locations and over 28,000 gravesites in his database, and he released his work to the Chatham County Historical Association for publication. Following the publication, Will
double-checked his data and turned over his collection of 48
loose-leaf binders of field notes for future reference. Not the least of Will’s contributions was pointing the direction for future research. Some of the reported gravesites have not been located and several remain to be inventoried. With an ever-growing interest in family history research, the on-going collection of tombstone data requires the continuing attention of dedicated volunteers
- like Will Heiser.
Will had another life besides the cemetery survey, though it would be hard to convince some CCHA volunteers that he had time for anything else. A retired civil engineer originally from Ohio, for many years Will was active in the American Society of Civil Engineers and the National Society of Professional Engineers. He served as chair of the Chatham County Board of Elections for eleven years, and in 1998 was presented an award of Outstanding Republican of Eastern North Carolina by Senator Jesse Helms. He faithfully attended Scottish Highland events, attired in his plaid tam-o’-shanter, jaunty plaid trousers, and red jacket.
Will is survived by his wife of 60 years, Audrey O.
Heiser; a daughter, Marcia L. Heiser of Westminster, Colorado; sons David M. Heiser of Fuquay-Varina and Charles D. Heiser of Sanford; seven grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters.
Photograph of Will Heiser by Duane