Nov 21, 2007

Pioneering "Political Graveyard" Still Just a Hobby for Ann Arbor's Kestenbaum

What began as an experiment and a hobby for Ann Arbor resident Larry Kestenbaum has gained him recognition all over the world.

Kestenbaum started and operates the Web site “The Political Graveyard.” In 1996 he put the U.S. Congressional Directory listings of the burial sites of lawmakers on the infant World Wide Web.

In the 11 years it has been up, Graveyard has evolved into perhaps the most comprehensive political biography site in the nation, with entries for more than 175,000 U.S. and state lawmakers, ambassadors and mayors of major U.S. cities, both dead and alive. More than 10,000 people a day visit the site.

“I’m 52, and I have done a lot in my life,” Kestenbaum said. “I have never received so much praise and recognition for anything I have ever done in my life. It’s really something to be praised for doing something you really enjoy.”

Kestenbaum is an attorney and the Washtenaw County clerk and register of deeds, as well as a former Washtenaw County and Ingham County commissioner. His father was a history professor, and it was Kestenbaum’s own interest in history that started him on the path to being an Internet pioneer.

He is amazed at the number of people who have heard of the site, he said, and it has been a great icebreaker as well as helpful in his own political career. “When I was a political candidate the Political Graveyard opened doors for me. People said, ‘If you can do that you would make a great clerk.' '”

Back in 1996 when the Internet was a vast, untapped resource, it was a friend that got him involved. He said the friend raved about this new thing called the Web and urged Kestenbaum to check it out.

“He said the World Wide Web is a great thing, but I thought it was a waste of bandwidth,” Kestenbaum said. “But he kept at me.”

Kestenbaum's original intent for the site was to help preserve a cemetery in Washington, D.C., where many politicians were buried. It had fallen into disrepair and was losing funding. The intent was also to identify where famous politicians are buried. He said many times famous people turn up in cemeteries off the beaten path when most people think they are buried in Arlington National Cemetery or other well-known places.

“Often, famous people die in obscurity,” he said. “I thought it would help people who may be writing a grant to preserve a cemetery, as well as impress my friends from graduate school.”

Kestenbaum said it was pretty easy doing the initial research, but most of the work was software programming-related in a new medium. He began by creating a page for each county in the U.S. and each province in Canada where U.S. politicians may be buried.

Once the data was online, however, he discovered someone else was doing basically the same thing. Just a year earlier Jim Tipton had started a site called “Find a Grave,” but it dealt mostly with celebrities. Kestenbaum wrote Tipton to see if it was a conflict, and Tipton told him to go ahead because he was filling a unique niche.

Over the years, Kestenbaum began matching the data and refining searches. For example, you can find politicians who were killed in duals (46), those who were Rhodes scholars (31) or those who were portrayed on U.S. coins or currency (44). You can search for a politician in any number of ways, including alphabetically by name, by state of birth and by office held.

“I would constantly think about new ways to match them,” Kestenbaum said. “I used to do a lot more programming than research when I started, but that has changed.”

Because there wasn’t much of a Web presence, especially for local governments, back in 1996, when people searched for their county government Kestenbaum’s site would often come up in the search results. That led to some nasty emails from people thinking his site was their county government. Kestenbaum said his most memorable email was one that said simply: "Your sheriff is a son-of-a-bitch.”

“It was a lot of fun lining up all that geography,” Kestenbaum said. “Because local governments did not have much of a Web page they would get my page, and thinking I was the webmaster they would email me demanding to know why the office wasn’t open for them to get a fishing license.”

It also set up the site to be included at the top of Internet searches. You can type in just about any U.S. politician in any search engine and The Political Graveyard will be one of the top search results returned.

Kestenbaum does most of the research himself, and he plans on rolling out another update very soon. He does have an email group of about 300 members that he uses to help with research. He will, for example, ask them if they have any information on a certain person.

Because Kestenbaum was somewhat of a pioneer in the world of the Internet, he has seen how Internet advertising has evolved. Although he accepts advertising, which he says does well because of the thousands of hits the site receives every day, he’s not going to quit his day job. He still maintains the site as a labor of love.

“I really resisted advertising because I thought it would distract from the site,” Kestenbaum said. “I have learned a lot about web advertising over the years.”

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