Forget golf, bridge or shuffleboard. Jim Woodruff's hobby is dead people.
Woodruff, 74, spends his retirement wandering through the fields of the departed armed with a camera, a clipboard and chalk.
He records the names of the dead and the year they died, and he takes a picture. If a gravestone is worn by age, he'll gently rub it with chalk to bring up the letters and solve the mystery.
Then, he goes to his home in the Plantation retirement community and sits down to his computer. The results of his work are posted on a website called uscemeteryproj.com. So far, Woodruff has collected photographs and information from about 56,000 graves, most in Lake County but a few in Sumter, Marion and Orange.
"It's addictive once you start on it," said Woodruff, who is fighting cancer and heart trouble that came from the treatments while he continues to gather cemetery information.
There are other resources on the Internet that allow genealogists to search for graves across the nation, but none are as complete as the collection that Woodruff has assembled for Lake County and none have the number of pictures that the U.S. Cemetery Project does. Many of them simply copy cemetery records rather than having a live human being walk the headstones.
Nationwide project builds steam
The project, which is based in the home of one of its founders in McLoud, Okla., has the stated goal of getting complete records, including pictures, of every grave and cemetery in the nation.
Founder Peggy Smith said that she met Woodruff when he was recording information about cemeteries where her ancestors were buried in Oklahoma. There, Woodruff had recorded information on 109,000 graves. Smith was intrigued and with a co-founder in Illinois jumped in to catalogue cemetery information in their two states.
"Then we decided one day we were going to get brave and do the whole United States, and then we got really overzealous and went on to cover the world," Smith said.
The "world" portion of the project hasn't exactly taken off, but the U.S. part has been building steam.
When Woodruff gets to a cemetery, he first records the GPS coordinates and takes a picture of the gate.
"Then, I walk down one row and back up the other, recording graves," he said.
But the work of uploading each of the photographs and applying computer codes is even more time-consuming than visiting the cemeteries. Woodruff is running behind in getting photographs posted because of his health problems, but he'll often e-mail a picture of a gravesite if a particular one is requested. He's gotten e-mail from as far away as Germany and Japan.
Black cemeteries full of history
In Lake County, Woodruff said, the Lone Oak Cemetery in Leesburg has some of the oldest graves, dating back to the late 1800s. Many of those are members of the Lee family, founders of the city.
The trickiest cemeteries tend to be old ones where blacks were buried — the gravestones often are faded and difficult to read.
"There is a lot of history in the real old black cemeteries," he said.
And I'm betting there is more history hidden in little-known spots around Lake County.
Hey, old-timers. Here's a challenge for you. How about checking the list of cemeteries that Woodruff has covered online at uscemeteryproj.com/florida/lake/lake.
If he's missed one, or if you know of several old graves tucked away in the woods somewhere, how about letting him know by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org? Isn't there a tiny old cemetery in what used to be the failed old town of Kismet, whose ruins are still hidden in the forest near Paisley? Somebody up there is bound to know.
Let's get all the lives of Lake County residents recorded for posterity.
Lritchie@tribune.com Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake