Trudging the trails at Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum was part of Phil Nuxhall's Weight Watchers calorie-burning plan for 2000, nothing more, until he looked up "and began seeing the architecture, the notable people buried there."

It was "love at first sight," he says and quickly became his retirement plan.

As he walked off the pounds, Nuxhall, now 58 and author of the new Beauty in the Grove: Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, ($49.95, Orange Frazer Press), became enchanted with the significance of the 1845 park known for its innovative design, art and tree collection from the four corners of the world.

He volunteered for the 2002 offshoot of Save Outdoor Sculpture, SOS, initiated by the Heritage Foundation, documenting public sculptures in the U.S. The goal was to find 100 of the most significant pieces of funerary art. "When we were finished we'd found over 600," he says. "That told us there was so much more history, art and architecture here than anyone thought or was aware of."

When the two-year project ended, he stayed on as he approached retirement from his career at MRDD (now Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services), teaching at Margaret B. Rost School, walking trails and roads after work, combing every section to find anything significant. "I'd stay till they kicked me out," he says. "It became a passion."

One day he stopped at the office and asked to speak with the historian.

They didn't have one.

So he asked for the person in charge of tours. 

They didn't have one.

He thought they needed both, so he whipped up a 10-page proposal, presented it to the board and one week after his retirement in 2003, he became both.

"It's a perfect example of what a passion can do as far as a career," or a second career, he says today. "It would have been very easy for me to be intimidated by the process. I wouldn't describe myself as a take-charge person, living in my dad's shadow all my life. (His father is the late Joe Nuxhall, legendary Reds player and broadcaster). I didn't really take life by the reins before then. But this really changed that."

Leading his first tour left him "insecure and thinking "¢I can't do this' but one person raved about it." Now he's comfortable center stage. "It's remarkable how it's changed my self-awareness."

The demand for tours has increased so much that an organized program was formed. It introduced more than 7,000 people to Spring Grove's beauty, horticulture, art and history last year. There are 15 trained docents, another 10 in the wings. There are about 26 scripted tours for groups as well as the popular public tours that include Weekend Walkabouts, Tram Tours, the Full Moon and Twilight Tours. (Information at www.springgrove.org/SG/Calendar/EventCalendar/EventCalendar.shtm).

The book was another example of "never say never," he says. To fund it, he wrote letters to people in the community "who I knew had the resources and shared a passion for Spring Grove and, low and behold, seven people gave us money" to pay for the publication.

Proceeds go directly to The Joe Nuxhall Children's Center at The One Way Farm, a residential home "for children and young adults who come from incredibly challenging backgrounds of severe abuse," he says. "Financing a new gymnasium and classrooms was my dad's pet project and one that he had so hoped would become a reality before his death."