Andrew Dys

York gives man dignity in death

YORK -- He was homeless, and he drank. Then he died in a fire. But "O'Gene" won't spend eternity homeless.

So what that 53-year-old David Eugene Alexander, "O'Gene" to those who knew him drunk or sober, lived in the woods, drank himself close to death for years, then finally did die in a flophouse fire in York a month ago today.

The people who worked with Alexander for decades when he wasn't drunk remembered not the stink of the booze but the work he did when he was off the bottle.

Workers at Cody's Grading in York read about Alexander's death in this column in The Herald on June 24. Alexander worked on and off there for years, running heavy equipment. When Alexander was sober, co-workers said nobody was better.

Police, who knew Alexander from the streets, said he was never violent and hurt no one.

Alexander had no spouse, no children. He burned to death penniless, homeless and alone. The only identification he had was a summons citing him for public drunkenness. His mother, Lois Allen, lives on a fixed income.

"I don't have the money," she said of the $300 needed to cremate her son and the hundreds more for a burial plot and headstone.

The men at Cody's quickly started collecting cash. These are hard-working guys with cracked knuckles and sunburned faces, not a bunch of suits who write a check one minute, then figure out how to write off the expense the next. A hundred bucks means rent to men like these guys. Each gave anyway. Soon, more than $1,300 was in the kitty.

"The only person O'Gene ever hurt was himself, with the drinkin'," said Jack Spradlin at Cody's, who spearheaded the collection. "He worked for me off and on 15, maybe 20 years. When he was on, there was none better."

Anyone who has toiled -- real physical work that makes the muscles ache -- for their money knows what that cold beer tastes like afterward, washing out the sweat and the dust that rings the throat.

Life and a broken heart from a relationship that went bad -- relationships almost always do, with the bottle -- turned that cold beer into a yearslong blanket of sorrow for Alexander. Finally death.

But so what? Alexander was in the Marine Corps as a young man, and former Marines in this area who read of his death called the York County Coroner's Office to offer their help with the burial. Pat Nivens, veterans affairs officer, spent weeks slicing through red tape to find Alexander's military record. The paperwork has been mailed from St. Louis and should be here this week, Nivens said Friday.

The military record would allow for a free marker, and even burial in a national cemetery. But other people in the community have already taken care of that.

All it took for a donated burial plot in York's Rose Hill Cemetery was one phone call from Spradlin to Bo Lowry, secretary of the Yorkville Cemetery Association. Right thing to do, Lowry said.

Another phone call went to Bill Wiley, in the monument business 50-plus years, who will donate a headstone.

"You don't worry about the cost, you do what is right," Wiley said.

Even a couple of ladies who Spradlin doesn't know figured that $30 they had was worth more to the cause of burying a stranger with dignity than it was to them. They dropped off the money at the Bank of York, where Spradlin started a burial account in Alexander's name.

A memorial service could come within days, Spradlin said.

Any money left over will start a fund for others who die without means to get buried, Spradlin said, a problem the coroner's office has grappled with for years. It took the death of a veteran, and a community that said his life meant more than broken dreams and hangovers, to do it.

Lois Allen, the mother, said Alexander's father was buried without a headstone. Not his son.

Because the people of York said one of their own deserves better.

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