LENOX Up the hill in the cemetery of St. Ann's Church, you can usually find Marcel Roux trudging around somewhere. He's the caretaker, born in these parts during the Great Depression, but he looks like a figure in a French painting you'd pay to see, maybe at the Clark Art Institute. Millet, perhaps. Round hat, wheelbarrow, rake. The giveaway is his sunglasses, a 20th-century invention he needs because that sun can get fierce. Also because he's legally blind.
"As I'm sure you'll notice," a neighbor whose house backs up on the cemetery wrote in a personal letter, "Marcel is blind yet manages to keep the cemetery in near pristine condition. Don't be alarmed if you see him walking beside the tractor, steering with one hand as he feels his way with his cane. He has donated his time to the cemetery for nearly two decades since RP (a degenerative eye disease) forced him to retire as a groundskeeper at Tanglewood. Although a bit shy, he is one of the nicest people in town."
What starts as Millet mutates into something from the epitaphs of "Spoon River Anthology." Roux knows the gravestones. Sets them himself. Knew the folks under them. And yes, he knows about the play "Our Town." The ties that bind are cultural, social, visual, literary, theatrical. And they tie to this one very private man, about whom many are ready with admiring stories — which start with a warning that he can't abide recognition.
So don't try looking for that solid stone cemetery bench with a carved dedication to him for 23 years of backbreaking volunteer work, cutting and weed-whacking nine acres, sometimes seven days a week. Some thought it would be an idea for a tribute, even if they felt it couldn't be an adequate one.
Roux was reportedly not at the ceremony, but later turned that bench top around so the inscription faces backwards. Father C.J. Waitekus, who came to St. Ann's in July 2001, was trying to do something nice for Roux while he was busy shepherding his new congregation through 9/11. Father C.J., as he's called, now shies away from arranging tributes, talking to reporters or doing anything that would ruffle this indispensable force of high personal standards and old-world civility. Come to think of it, so do others.
"I wish I had him working for me now," Ron Brouker, supervisor of Tanglewood crews, said wistfully, recalling Roux's days on the Tanglewood grounds crew. "He came all through the winter before 8 a.m. At 8 he was out of the shop and we didn't see him again till 4:30. He was full time year round." When Brouker came in 1967, Roux was already there, working for the legendary, distinguished-looking Tanglewood groundskeeper James Kiley. (Roux's former job is currently held by Dave Sturma.) "He couldn't sit still," Brouker said. "We called him Beaver."
The nickname "Beaver" goes back a long way. It's how Roux was known at Lenox High School, where he worked on several committees. His classmate Henry Sedgwick (of the Lenox Sedgwicks, not the Stockbridge ones) remembers Roux as smart and a loner, though he was listed in the 1948 yearbook's class prophecy page as destined to become a famous columnist for advice to the lovelorn.
Roux sees himself as simply living in the tradition of those who came before him. "They were immigrants," he said. "There was no unemployment insurance back then. They had to make it. All of them worked on estates." He remembers seeing John Pignatelli, (grandfather of Smitty) who used to work at Bellefontaine (now Canyon Ranch) walking into Lenox in the evening after work. "The bank there was a private house back then. He would mow their lawn with a lantern on the lawnmower."
Stories about Roux are equally compelling. Thirty years ago when an elm tree in Tanglewood's formal gardens died, Brouker said, "Beaver dug it out by hand. He had an old ax and it took a couple of days — it would take me a week. We rolled it onto a cart. It was the only time he asked for help."
He uses a folding ruler for a cane, people will tell you. He uses a white stick only to walk on the street to his home — which he built himself, after the foundation was laid. They tell of the special tool he used, that beeped when something was level. They tell of the VW in his garage that he took apart and put together. They say he repairs engines, climbs trees, reaches out to people who need help, doesn't need to use any lights in his house.
And as happens with anyone as strong and private as he, myths begin to grow up around him. So, for the record, it is not true that he lost half a finger in a Tanglewood work accident and didn't go to the hospital. "The ambulance squad took me to the hospital," he says. "We all have booboos." And another thing: his parents did so take him to the doctor, in fact to a specialist at Mass. Eye and Ear, he says, who said there was no cure for his degenerative retinitis pigmentosa, but who treated him very well.
Roux came to St. Ann's in 1983. As he remembers it, Ed Roche, father of Ned who still runs the Roche Funeral Home next door, would bring in the Knights of Columbus and other church members to put flags on the graves and spruce them up for Memorial Day. "Father O'Connor announced casually that he was looking for people to clean up on that weekend," he said. "A lot of guys came, but I never left."
According to the Web site www.city-data.com, as of 2000, Lenox was 19.8 percent Irish, 16.7 percent English, 13 percent Italian, 10.3 percent German, 8.6 percent French and 5 percent Polish. Names from all these nationalities are on the monuments and in-ground plaques. Roux guesses there are 25 O'Briens. A James Kiley is there too, but not the Tanglewood groundskeeper, even though one can find graves of unrelated people with his family's exact given names.
Off the other side of the pathway near the fence is a black marble stone with the names of the cemetery's single Jewish family, buried in St. Ann's by request because it would be nearer for the family to visit. Roux learned a lot preparing for that funeral, about the Jewish custom of having a wheelbarrow full of earth ready for people to throw handfuls into the grave, and small stones to put on the grave, as was seen at the end of the film "Schindler's List." "Nice lady," he muses, of the first one to be buried there. "I was shocked when she died."
Roux and his assistant, John Peyron of Stockbridge, are used to taking their hats off and holding them over their hearts while people recite things. When it comes to finding graves, Roux shows what it means to truly know where the bodies are buried.
Starting with Michael Pasco, 1895-1989, whose plaque is by the road in the row reserved for babies and single people, Roux says, "He walked into Edgecombe Nursing Home one day. No one knew where he came from. He had no one. When he died, the pastor asked for people who might come to his funeral. Forty-two people came. And he had no one."
Roux walks through the stones, sweeping the flat surfaces with his rake as if reading Braille, speaking with pride of the former lives beneath as if they were his own friends. "1888. Raphael. There we go. First American in China. Sometimes you bury people, you don't know what their career is till you read their biography." Pointing to another: "She was an airplane pilot." And another: "He was huge. They had to put him in a jumbo."
About a man's and a woman's grave near each other, he is sorry. "He was supposed to get married to her, but she died." Of a young person's grave the rake touches, he says sadly, "Left this world by her own hand." As one parishioner said of Roux, emblematically, "He knows where it all is."
The land for St. Ann's cemetery was purchased 108 years ago, and Ned Roche estimates there could be up to 2,000 plots, topping the hill and beginning to move down the other side. "We're going eastward with our graves," says Roux, gesturing eastward.
His parents are here. He knows where and it's his business. He knows, too, where he will lie, when the time comes. Till then, says Peyron, "He runs it and knows everything that's going on. This is his glory."
Photo: The pristine grounds at St. Ann's Cemetery in Lenox are cared for by longtime volunteer Marcel Roux. Photo by Caroline Bonnivier / Berkshire Eagle Staff