The definition of professional success is subjective. For a funeral director, it might be determined by job security, salary or seniority. An owner, perhaps, could measure triumph by consecutive years in business, call volume or gross revenue.
Patty Hutcheson, CFSP, executive director of the Academy of Funeral Service Practice, would credit her career accomplishments to the love and support of family, especially Danny, her devoted husband of 40 years. Since 1983, the couple has owned and operated Hutcheson’s Memorial Chapel and Crematory as she simultaneously served as a long-time instructor at Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service, subsequently becoming the institution’s first female president.
However, the last two years have been challenging, a direct impact of the massive stroke Danny suffered at the funeral home.
“Live each day as if it were your last,” said Hutcheson, who celebrates continued blessings and praises and is forever thankful for God’s faithful presence during their journey of life and love.
Hutcheson was raised in the small town of Bremen, Georgia, and graduated from its high school. While not high school sweethearts, Hutcheson and her future husband both were natives of Haralson County.
“We were introduced at a Wednesday night prayer meeting for youth. Danny attended the county school, while I went to the city school. We were in the same class, but I’m four months older,” she described, recalling that Danny would jokingly brag that he was married to an older woman.
Many students expressed interest in the funeral profession during high school, but Hutcheson had aspirations of becoming an educator.
“I received my associate degree early from Truett McConnell College and then completed my bachelor’s degree in English at West Georgia College. The funeral business was not in my blood, nor was I groomed to be a funeral director. My first experience with death was my grandfather’s funeral when I was 15,” she remembered, admitting that Danny initially had another calling, also.
“When we started dating, Danny wanted to be a United Methodist minister. Early on, he was the youth pastor at Rockmart First United Methodist Church before taking a position with Hightower Funeral Homes as a funeral assistant, eventually becoming a certified emergency medical technician,” Hutcheson commented, attributing the opportunity to altering her husband’s career trajectory.
“Danny felt he could have a bigger impact as a funeral director than by standing behind a pulpit,” she said.
Serving the church together in various capacities would remain constant throughout their marriage.
“Shortly after getting married, we moved to Warner Robins, and Danny served his apprenticeship at McCullough Funeral Home,” she stated.
Meanwhile, Hutcheson would travel home twice a week, stay with her parents and continue coursework toward her master’s degree at West Georgia College.
“Danny would help out at the funeral home during the evening, and I would often accompany him. Mr. McCullough said that I might as well work, so I began working visitations and serving my apprenticeship. Looking back, our experience in Warner Robins was great for our marriage. We had both come from the same small community where our parents still lived, so we were able to grow up and gain some independence,” Hutcheson recounted.
Staying true to their roots, the couple returned home in 1983, settling in Buchanan. It had been years since the thousand-resident community had a local funeral home. With very limited capital, they reluctantly began searching for real estate, hoping to find a seller willing to negotiate a deal to owner finance.
“Interestingly, one of my high school friends lived in the house that is now our funeral home. We used a bathroom attached to the embalming room as our personal bathroom for five years. When I was pregnant, we decided it was time to expand. At first, Mr. and Mrs. Mabry declined our offer to owner finance the home which was built in 1904. After they accepted, we hand-delivered their check every month, and Mrs. Mabry would cook for us. We have since buried both of them,” she explained.
Hutcheson’s Memorial Chapel was established on Aug. 7, 1983, with eight calls handled during the first year. Patty’s maternal grandmother was their first call.
“We were thrilled when the business tripled during the second year, and we did 24 calls. Both of our dads would drive the hearse on occasion. Our parents were incredibly supportive. In addition to working as an English teacher at Haralson County High School, I sold Avon to make ends meet. In 1984, I graduated from Gupton-Jones,” stated Hutcheson, who would go on to finish her master’s degree in English from West Georgia College, which is now known as the University of West Georgia, in 1986.
Apart from making funeral arrangements, the family also provided local ambulance services.
“Both Danny and I were certified EMTs, and, in the beginning, the ambulance business helped provide cash flow for the funeral home. We gave that up in 1991. I don’t miss the emergencies, but I do miss the older patients,” she reminisced.
With locations in Buchanan and nearby Temple, the firm now handles more than 200 calls annually and is the only area funeral home with an on-site crematory.
“We installed the first retort in 2008 and a second was implemented to cremate for eight other funeral homes. In one year, we performed nearly 1,000 cremations. The second location in Temple was begun in large part because our daughter and son-in-law were entering the business. Also, Temple had never had its own funeral home, and the community is growing. The community has been very supportive,” Hutcheson commented.
Still active in the community, Hutcheson was elected to the Buchanan City Council in 2011 and is serving her 3rd term, while Danny serves as Haralson County coroner. Kathryn Hutcheson Croft is the funeral director in charge in Buchanan, while her husband, Chase, manages the operations of the Temple location, known as Hutcheson-Croft Funeral Home & Cremation Service. Kathryn currently serves as the Immediate Past President of the Academy of Graduate Embalmers of Georgia.
“Danny and I live next door to the funeral home, so I will still meet with families and work funerals when they need me. I went on a death call the other night. Kathryn and Chase live one street over. Our granddaughter, Kaylee, has literally grown up at the funeral home, similar to Kathryn, who was 8 years old before we moved out,” she said.
After teaching at Haralson County High School for three years, Hutcheson began having neurological issues. According to her doctor, the symptoms were caused by workplace stress, and she was advised to retire permanently from teaching.
“Teaching in a rural area and knowing my students and their parents personally caused me to take on many of their struggles as my own. I did not want to give up teaching but did not want to ignore the doctor’s advice. Around the same time, Dan Buchanan, who was president of Gupton-Jones, called and offered me a teaching job. I decided a change of scenery would be best,” she said.
Rising as early at 4:30 a.m., Hutcheson commuted to the college’s Decatur campus five days a week, averaging 140 miles each day – a routine she kept for 27 years. Leaving briefly in August 1990 for a second stint teaching in high school, she returned nine months later.
“I had the best of both worlds, combining my love of education and funeral service. I taught restorative art, communication, sociology and psychology. In my graduating class at Gupton-Jones in 1984, there were five women in a class out of 55 students. At times, I could be harder on female students because I wanted them to know they were an anomaly and that they had to work twice as hard in a male-dominated field. Now that has certainly changed,” Hutcheson described.
In 2000, Buchanan retired after being at the college’s helm for nearly 18 years.
Hutcheson’s Funeral Home and Ambulance Service opened on Aug. 7. 1983. Then, as now, it operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Director Danny Hutcheson estimates that the ambulance service has answered 10,000 calls since 1983. Of the 656 funeral homes in Georgia, only four provide ambulance services. Three of those funeral homes are in Haralson County and the other, W.L. Wilson Funeral Home, is in Fort Oglethorpe.
“It’s a very unique situation,” says Hutcheson. Hutcheson’s has two ambulances available 24 hours a day and provides advanced life support and non-emergency transportation services to places like doctor’s offices and hospitals. The service has its own private frequency on its mobile communication system. It uses cellular phones to communicate.
Other equipment the services uses include a cardiac monitor; Military Anti-Shock Trousers (MAST), which are inflated to apply pressure to the legs and lower abdomen of shock patients; incubating equipment; equipment which opens a patient’s airways; intravenous (ID) fluids; and cardiac drugs.
Hutcheson employs two cardiac technicians – Hutchenson and Bobby King and six emergency medical technicians (EMT’s) – Ken McWhorter, Beth Frisby, Dave Higgins, Shanna Turner, Kim Williams and Darwyn Summerville, who is also a nurse. Hutcheson’s wife, Patty, is also employed there, along with non-emergency transporters Jim Sanders and Bud McPherson.
There are three levels of EMT training in Georgia: basic EMT’s must take 220 class hours of training to become certified; cardiac technicians must take an additional year of training; and paramedics must take two additional years of training.
Rhonda Vines, News Editor
“Dan called me to his office to discuss succeeding him as president. I didn’t believe him because I thought there was no way a woman would become Gupton-Jones College president in the South. He had to call the board of trustees to convince me,” she recalled.
At the age of 41, Patty Hutcheson became the first female president in Gupton-Jones College history.
“Most of the other instructors were men, so it was hard to be one of the guys and then be boss of the guys. I still loved being in the classroom and enjoyed the students, so, throughout my tenure as president, I kept teaching restorative art and psychology. My largest individual class comprised 152 students in 1996, which was the last year that we offered the 12-month certificate program in favor of the associate degree,” Hutcheson expounded.
In addition to her role as college president, she served a two-year term as president of the American Board of Funeral Service Education. Hutcheson retired from Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in 2014.
Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice
Highly regarded as a curriculum expert and proponent of working toward improving the trade’s credibility and professional designations, Hutcheson was tapped to lead the Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice (APFSP) as its executive director in 2013.
“When I interviewed for the position, they were looking for someone full-time. So, basically, I worked two full-time jobs temporarily. I would get home at 6 p.m. from Gupton, have dinner and log on at 7 p.m. to work on Academy business until midnight,” she said.
The Hutcheson family already had a history with the APFSP; Danny previously served on the organization’s board of trustees and as president.
“The Academy was started in the 1970s when continuing education was not required, so it recognized people who have a love of learning. My job responsibilities include overseeing the Certified Funeral Service Practitioner (CFSP) program, renewals, sending out the biannual newsletter and email communication for members with questions,” Hutcheson explained, ascribing her curriculum experience as an asset because she also reviews and approves continuing education programs for Academy approved providers.
The CFSP designation is awarded to funeral service professionals who strive for continued personal and professional development in an effort to become better and more effective practitioners. After achieving 180 – 18 CEUs – required hours in four separate categories, the member is eligible for certification. Twenty hours – 2 CEUs – each year, along with paying annual membership dues, will keep membership active.
“To increase the Academy’s exposure, I attend five or six national conventions annually and enjoy speaking at conventions about the CFSP program. Primarily, however, I telecommute from my home office. In this role, I really believe the Lord was preparing me for what was to come,” she imparted.
On April 27, 2018, Danny Hutcheson suffered a massive stroke while working at the funeral home. He had just met with a family and made two removals, and he uncharacteristically asked an employee for a numeric code he used daily.
“Danny is a numbers guy, so the employee knew it was highly unusual for him to have asked. Our office manager called me at home to say he had been in the bathroom for a long period time and appeared to be sick. We live next door, so when I arrived, I found him throwing up and incoherent. At first, I was going to drive him to the hospital. We were unable to get him to the car, so I called an ambulance,” Hutcheson remembered.
The Hutcheson family discontinued their ambulance service more than 25 years ago, but Hightower Funeral Home still operates an ambulance company in the county separate from the funeral home. Ironically, it was Bill Hightower who made the decision to transport Danny Hutcheson directly to Grady Hospital, Atlanta’s leading stroke and neurological treatment center, where he remained for 18 days.
“After leaving Grady, he was at an acute-care facility for 35 days and then came home. At first, he was not able to speak. He is now talking, and we are hopeful 2020 will be the year for walking. As I’m doing this interview, Danny is listening. We maintain a joint home office and are together every day,” she said.
Devoted members of Buchanan United Methodist Church, Hutcheson is a former Sunday school teacher, lay leader and lay servant and has taught several courses on being a lay servant.
“Danny used to officiate funerals for families without a minister or for friends who requested him. Now, families will tell Kathryn, ‘If we can’t have your daddy, we’ll have your mama,” Hutcheson affirmed.
When Southern Calls Associate Editor Luke Teague said to tell Danny hello, Hutcheson politely put him on speaker phone and responded, “Tell him yourself!”
“For the first time in my life, I don’t know what I will be doing in five years. I will continue to work for the Academy and support the kids at the funeral home. We are taking it day by day. I now know firsthand how quickly life can change and am thankful for the everyday blessings. We are living each day as if it’s our last,” she concluded.
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Southern Calls Issue 27
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