I grew up in northern Pennsylvania, the only child of working class parents. Although my background was modest, I had an extraordinary stroke of luck: an artist who taught in the schools and mentored me throughout my childhood and adolescence. She shaped my love of design and helped me win a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts), which brought me to Philadelphia. Upon graduating, my plan was to become an interior designer.
Then I got a call from the draft office informing me that my number had been called and I was now a private in the Army. This changed everything. I was already married to Ellen, but was suddenly living in a base in Virginia and asked to create models of the Vietnamese landscape. We would design these massive topographical maps of jungles and roads that were shipped out to California for departing soldiers to study.
The upside is that I developed skill in designing exhibits, which would become my career for over 30 years. Along the way, I also became an appraiser, raised two daughters, and survived four cancer diagnoses — three for me and one for Ellen.
Since joining Old Pine and moving into the neighborhood, my passion has become telling the story of this graveyard. People don’t appreciate the monumental history that lies beneath these headstones. George Duffield, Old Pine’s first minister, is a critical figure not only in the creation of the United States, but in the creation of democracy in this country. He’s but one of many significant people who were laid to rest here.
But it’s the stories of the ordinary churchgoers that really inspire me. What they survived, what they endured, what they contributed to our history, the faith that kept them going — it moves me to tears. When I sit in church on Sunday morning, I imagine the way the sanctuary looked in the 1700s. I can feel the presence of the ancestors who came before us. It’s special beyond words.
This is why the 250th Anniversary [in 2018] is so important to me. It’s a time in which we will gather people from around the country who have roots in this graveyard. It will be a time to celebrate the story of this church, while doubling down on our efforts to preserve it. My hope is that young people from the congregation will feel the spark of history and want to get involved. We need tour guides!
– Ronn Shaffer, Historian & President, Old Pine Conservancy
Ronn Shaffer passed away on March 28, 2019. Ronn, known to many at Old Pine for the countless hours he spent researching more than 4,000 bodies buried at the Old Pine graveyard, was a historian, a one-man band, and a real gentleman. He will be missed, but his legacy will live on in the research he left behind. To learn more about the history of Old Pine, please visit the Old Pine Conservancy website.