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World War I vet's headstone ends up in east Hillsborough woman's yard

Almost a half century ago, a man named Russell Leigh died. He served in the Army, worked as a shoe repairman and was a member of the American Legion.

He was laid to rest in Odessa. That was in 1961.

Recently, a woman made a bewildering discovery about Leigh: his headstone was underneath her trailer near Seffner — about 25 miles east of the cemetery where his remains were believed to be.

Why the two were separated became a mystery.

In April, a couple of maintenance workers found the headstone face down in the ground at the back end of Kim Peters' trailer off Clay Pit Road. An overgrown cactus plant had covered it up.

The workers pulled it out from under the home and left it in the yard. When Peters, who has been renting the trailer since March, first saw the headstone, it looked like a plain concrete slab. It would make a perfect addition to the steps leading up to her door, she thought.

"I flipped it over to see if I could carry it," she said. "And when I saw all the writing I'm like, 'No, we can't use this.'?"

She wiped the dirt off. Its inscription became legible.

RUSSELL B LEIGH

FLORIDA

SADDLER 157 DEPOT BRIGADE

WORLD WAR I

DEC 7 1894 OCT 9 1961

Peters' first thought was that someone stole the marker from a grave site. She also wondered if Leigh's body had actually been buried under her home. Maybe the headstone ended up there as a result of a bad hurricane, her boyfriend joked.

Not long after a trip to the library to do some digging, Peters met a cemetery research buff who traced Leigh to the cemetery at Keystone United Methodist Church, 16301 Race Track Road.

• • •

Russell B. Leigh was born in Folkston, Ga., according to his death certificate. At some point, he owned a shoe repair shop.

He joined the Army in 1917. His Army serial number was 1,858,358. Leigh served overseas for nine months and was honorably discharged with no war injuries on Feb. 26, 1919, according to his service record.

Leigh was a resident of Odessa when he died at St. Joseph's Hospital. He left behind a wife, Louise Boehning Leigh. She died in 1984.

• • •

There are almost 70 graves without headstones at Keystone Cemetery, estimated Geri Ingalls, secretary of the volunteer committee that runs the cemetery. The headstone found with Leigh's name on it appears to have been issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (though the VA can't find any documentation of it).

The cemetery has records proving that Leigh was buried there the year he died, she said. A map of the land, where the remains of at least 1,500 people lie, shows Leigh's exact burial location.

"His headstone just did not get put on his grave," Ingalls said when the Times inquired about Leigh. "It's as simple as that."

But, in fact, it wasn't.

Ingalls later did more research. After contacting the funeral home that purchased Leigh's plot, she learned that the man's remains were no longer in Odessa.

Eleven years after his death, Leigh's wife had his remains exhumed and moved to the Garden of Memories Funeral Home and Cemetery on E Lake Avenue in Tampa, Ingalls said. Russell and Louise Leigh share a mausoleum space there.

"Our records were not updated," Ingalls said after the revelation. "We did not have that information." She added that the cemetery now has much more organized methods of record keeping.

It turns out, the committee says, Leigh's headstone was in the ground at Keystone Cemetery until it was given to his family when he was moved.

As for how it ended up face down in a trailer park, that's anyone's guess.

The church cemetery retrieved the headstone this week. It will be reinstalled right where Leigh was once buried, a way of honoring the war veteran.

Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kevin Smetana can be reached at ksmetana@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.

World War I vet's headstone ends up in east Hillsborough woman's yard 07/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 10:20pm]
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