As a student at Williamson Junior and Senior High School in Tioga Junction, Pennsylvania, Duane Hills, now 61, discovered a passion for American history that was nurtured by his grandfather.
“He would load my brothers and I into the car, and we would spend weekends visiting Civil War battle grounds, learning about the generals and studying the life of Abraham Lincoln,” Hills remembered fondly. “I couldn’t wait for the next issue of My Weekly Reader, especially when they re-opened Ford’s Theatre in 1968. For some reason, I was particularly drawn to that.”
A good student with an innate curiosity, while his friends were deciding on college or careers during their junior year in high school, Hills confessed he had no idea about his life’s direction.
“My father was a building contractor, and I didn’t know if I wanted to join him in that business, so I went to our school librarian, Bonnie Miller,” the director remembered. “We had become friends, so I asked for her help.”
The librarian gathered a selection of pamphlets, books and magazines and invited him to take his time going through the materials she collected.
“One book that caught my eye was titled, ‘A Life of Service – Being a Funeral Director,’” Hills recalled. “Mrs. Miller allowed me to take the book home, and, after reading it, I wrote to Simmons School of Mortuary Science in Syracuse, New York.”
The school replied with information about admission requirements, pre-requisite classes and costs, so, after graduation, Hills enrolled in Corning Community College in New York and began his journey toward funeral service.
The first in his family to seek education beyond high school, Hills’ family supported his choice to pursue a career in funeral service, as did his school’s administrators.
“My guidance counselor suggested I visit a funeral home before I enrolled in mortuary school,” he said.
His family viewed the cycle of life, including death, as natural – something every family experienced.
“We were never protected from death,” the Gawler’s president said. “We were taken to funerals as children. The first service I was old enough to remember was in 1967 when my grandfather died.”
The owner of the funeral home Hills’ family used in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, was Cleo Kuhl, and “I remember standing by my grandfather’s casket, watching to see if his chest would move.”
After his grandfather’s service, the funeral director gave 9-year-old Hills and his brothers a tour of a room filled with caskets.
When Hills’ guidance counselor suggested visiting a funeral home before attending mortuary school, the high school senior wrote to Kuhl and again was given a tour of the funeral home, this time seeing the prep room, with a gravity-feed embalming percolator.
“In 1978, I joined a class of 40 students, in search of a profession where every day could be different,” he confessed. “I always had gravitated toward serving others, especially the elderly. I decided funeral service would be a perfect fit for what I wanted to achieve in my life.”
No stranger to responsibility and hard work, after his community was flooded in 1972, the 13-year-old Hills was recruited by a family friend to oversee his hardware store and lumber company.
“When I went to the store for the first time,” he said, “I thought it would be like a babysitting job – except I would be watching over and waiting on customers and ended up running the man’s business for the entire summer before returning to school in the fall.
“When I think about it now, that owner took a big chance, allowing a 13-year-old boy to take over the business. That job marked my beginnings as a responsible employee, and though it may be hard to believe currently, that owner showed me where his pistol was – under the cash register – and told me to use it if I needed to. I never touched it.”
He described his mortuary school experience as “very tough.”
“The dean was a grouchy old man. He was not very pleasant but the best anatomy teacher, and I couldn’t get enough,” the director said. “But I was very young and not knowing where I would land, dealing with a lot of uncertainty because most of my classmates were the next generation of their family business.”
Hills served part of his apprenticeship in Savona, New York, where the funeral home proprietor owned the motel next door, “so my job included making beds and cleaning toilets as well as working at the funeral home,” he remembered. “The owner’s parents lived at the motel, and his mother made fabulous meals.”
In 1996, while managing four locations, Carpenter’s Funeral Homes, Hills Funeral Home, Beilby Funeral Home, and Ballard and Lindgren Funeral Home, Hills hired a young, talented funeral director by the name of James Caywood.
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