Bruce Grethen has logged as many hours of volunteer work in the past seven years as many people do in a lifetime. But as impressive as the quantity is, Grethen is appreciated more for the quality of his free labor.
As a result, the Fort Bend County Historical Commission is awarding Grethen the Bert E. Bleil Heritage Award for 2019 in recognition of the Missouri transplant’s contributions to the preservation of county history and culture. The presentation will take place at the annual Bleil Award reception at Safari Texas Ranch in Richmond on Tuesday, March 5.
Grethen, a geologist and geophysicist (bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Missouri), was recruited for the historical commission’s cemetery committee in 2013 by committee chair Bob Crosser. This group, the largest among a half-dozen committees within the commission, works against time as well as Fort Bend County’s rapid growth to locate, document and rescue forgotten and/or endangered graves.
Crosser, who was the first recipient of the Bleil Award in 2009, said Grethen averages 80 hours per month doing commission-related volunteer work that also takes in areas of interest outside the committee. He currently serves as vice chair of the cemetery committee.
Again, however, Crosser emphasized that his star recruit’s knowledge and abilities are of even greater value than the time donated. Grethen has been able to transfer his skills in geology, geophysics and geographic information systems (GIS) to his volunteer duties.
“Bruce used his high proficiency in geophysics and computer science,” Crosser explained, “to introduce the historical commission to the use of ground penetrating radar to locate unmarked graves and other historic elements not visible at the surface. Bruce designed and conducted a testing program for the GPR system acquired by the Friends of the FBCHC, he performed scientific tests of the equipment. He then designed a standard for processing the measurements the equipment would yield.”
Crosser said Grethen has designed and conducted numerous GPR investigations including one at the Bland Cemetery, which contained 17 unmarked graves. In the as-yet unresolved search for the grave of Texas Revolution hero Erastus “Deaf” Smith, Grethen detected seven ground anomalies in the suspected location around the intersection of Houston and Sixth streets in Richmond.
“Bruce has contributed to the knowledge and preservation of historic and cultural resources of Fort Bend County in many other ways,” Crosser said.
Those include adjusting and refining location coordinates for all known historic cemeteries and creating a database of extracted information from county death records (1903-1990) containing up to 10 identifiers for each decedent.
He sought out and obtained for the commission, at processing cost only, 650 frames of a 1941 high-resolution aerial survey of the county and created a digital base index map of the photos. He has created hundred of GIS projects using these aerials and other historic data to determine the location of lost cultural resources and cemeteries.
Other projects Grethen has initiated or aided include determining the likely location of the 19th century Churchill Fulshear Jr. horse racing track and designing and constructing internal bracing for the cistern on the Mirabeau B. Lamar home site in advance of archeological investigation.
His volunteer time is divided between the commission office and the county roadways, from which he reconnoiters for historically important structures as candidates for preservation and also checks the conditions of historic cemeteries.
Grethen and his wife Linda live in Sugar Land.