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.
“He took a vacation, and, when he returned, he was telling us about stopping at Joseph Gawler’s Sons in Washington, D.C. He had been able to visit with the legendary Joe Hagan, who showed him a list of all the high-profile funerals held there. The young director felt it had been a ‘mountain top’ experience for a funeral director, and, being passionate about history, it caught my eye as well,” Hills related.
Despite his experiences in upstate New York, including a stint as a funeral home owner at age 23, Hills said Lufkin, Texas, is where he felt the most respect from the public as a director. He was transferred to East Texas by Service Corporation International.
“It was so different from what I knew. The people showed up for funerals and carried themselves with reverence,” Hills said. “On the streets in town as well as on the highways, cars pulled over. Drivers often stopped their engines, got out and stood by their cars, removing their hats and placing them over their hearts when a procession passed. I had never seen anything like that.”
How did Duane Hills from Corning, New York, arrive at Joseph Gawler’s Sons in Washington, D.C., and, in short order, become president of the prestigious firm?
The death of notorious U.S. Rep. Charles “Good Time Charlie” Wilson of Texas –and the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” – played an unexpected role in Hills’ destiny. The retired 11-term congressman passed away three years after undergoing a heart transplant in 2007. On Feb. 10, 2010, he was attending a meeting in Lufkin when he collapsed and was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest.
Hills was the manager of Gipson Funeral Home in Lufkin at the time and had fully embraced his new residence, adding blue jeans, a large belt buckle, boots and a Stetson to his wardrobe. Entrusted with the congressman’s remains, Hills was working out of Oakley-Metcalf Funeral Home because Gipson’s was being renovated after taking a direct hit from an F-3 tornado.
Services for Wilson were held at Angelina College, a historic community college in Lufkin, but his final resting place would be Arlington National Cemetery, with arrangements through Joseph Gawler’s Sons. At the invitation of Wilson’s widow, Barbara, Hills accompanied the family and the congressman’s remains on a flight to the nation’s capital.
When he arrived at Gawler’s, plans were well underway for Wilson’s interment at Arlington, attracting the national spotlight, but Gen. Alexander Haig had died the night before, so many people were moving quickly in and out of the Washington firm. It was during this chaos that the New York-born funeral director from Lufkin had his first glimpse of Joseph Gawler’s Sons.
“I was rushed upstairs and fitted with a topcoat that matched the other directors, but I couldn’t help the awe I felt just being in this place that had seen so much history,” Hills remembered.
Later that year at a location sales meeting, attendees were asked to write down their goals. “Within one year, I want to be a director at Gawler’s,” Hills wrote.
In a bold follow-up, he called Gawler’s President Terry Shotkowski, asking if there was a waiting list to apply for a job at the storied firm. Hills said he was surprised at the response: There was no waiting list. In fact, it was difficult keeping people and Shotkowski wanted to add an assistant manager’s position to help with the workload as well as assure succession.
Several months passed before he was asked to meet with Ralph De Stefano for an interview.
“A month later, I got a call. It was May 2012, and, soon after, I was on my way to Washington,” Hills remembered. He had reached his goal with just a few days to spare.
On Christmas Eve 2012, the manager of Gawler’s quit. Hills had been there only four months, but he wanted to be considered for the job. He interviewed in January 2013 and the next month was named the President of Joseph Gawler’s Sons.
Sometimes Hills stops to marvel at how his circuitous route in funeral service led to the pinnacle of his career.
“I have had many and varied experiences, from rural New York with the beautiful Finger Lakes to the piney woods of East Texas and then to this stately three-story brick at 5130 Wisconsin Ave.,” he said. “My journey has been filled with many mentors, managers and wonderful colleagues. Every decision, every funeral, every crisis I’ve encountered in my career prepared me for the next step toward my destiny.
I now am honored to be a small part of our country’s history. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.”
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Southern Calls Issue 26
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