My trip to Denver: Seeing history repeat itself

Todd Van Beck's picture

I have been on many interesting and growth filled trips in my long and not totally uneventful career, but this last week end in Denver, Colorado has to be in the top five of these experiences.

My assignment on this trip was to do a couple of clergy seminars for various churches and one seminary.  I was looking forward to this Rocky Mountain trip because 38 years ago I lived 100 miles north of Denver in Cheyenne, Wyoming where I worked as a funeral director and unbelievably a Deputy County Coroner for the Wiederspahn Chapel of the Chimes. (Today owned by my good buddy Roger Radomsky and family).

Because Cheyenne was only 100 miles away, I-25 and Denver became a second home for anybody who worked at Wiederspahn’s.  All the remains we received or shipped out came in and out of Stapleton Airport in Denver, and all the trade embalming we needed done was taken care of by a wonderful old man named Floyd Stevens, who owned a leviathan mortuary building on East 17th Street in Denver.  Floyd Stevens opened in 1932, and Floyd was still embalming in 1975 when he sold the firm to Crist’s.  I liked Mr. Stevens a great deal, all he wanted to do was to embalm – and he was damned good at what he did.

Colorado has had an interesting funeral service history.  First of all, the first mortuary college was opened in Denver by Dr. Auguste Renouard in 1874.  George Olinger founded the National Selected Morticians in Denver in 1917, and the Archdiocese of Denver opened up a mortuary on the grounds of Mount Olivet cemetery in the 1980’s (which created quite a fuss) and then of all things the Colorado State Legislature sunset the State Board which interestingly gave beautiful Colorado the distinction of being the only state in the Union that had neither a funeral director or embalmer’s license.  That also created quite a fuss.  

When I return to Denver it is like walking down my past history in funeral service.  I enjoy the trip and of course I always have to have the prime rib at the Brown Palace Hotel does not detract from my fun in the least.

Friday evening late the plane landed and my gracious clergy hosts picked me up, and off we went.  I was put up at the Marriott downtown, which is not too shabby.  The seminars, there were four of them, went fine as far as the evaluations went. Of course the standard response from the clergy was, as always, “Why didn’t we get this stuff in seminary?”  This is always the lamentable state of affairs with the clergy, but the seminary curriculum committees have been totally disinterested in any curriculum proposals I have sent in – but then of course my stuff is most often not that good or well thought out.

However something marvelous happened to me while I was in Denver.  This marvelous occurrence was very close to home and involved a longtime friend of mine by the name of George Malesich – he was a former student of mine at the ICCFA University in Memphis. 

Here is the inspiring story:

In April of last year, for a variety of reasons George Malesich and his buddy Donald Shirey, Jr. opened up a new funeral home, they are partners.  Both men had been employed by a high profile mortuary/cemetery company when they decided that it was time to venture forth into the risky world of independent entrepreneurship and open their own funeral home – from scratch.

New funeral home buildings had certainly been built in Denver, but existing funeral home companies had built them, and according to my memory a spanking new independent funeral home had not been opened in the metro area in decades.

I wanted to see George’s and Don’s place first hand.  So when there was a break in my work I caught a cab and out to a place called Arvada I ventured.

The cab dropped me off and George and Donald were there with big smiles.  I asked them what the building had been at one time and they announced proudly that it had been a former “Seven-11.”  The building is approximately 1,800 square feet, not big, but what they have done with 1,800 square feet is truly remarkable.  

When I looked around my thoughts went to the fact that most every funeral home in the country when they first started out began in humble surrounding, not cheap or distasteful, but just humble surroundings.  This little mortuary is tastefully humble.  It is truly a home like environment, and remember folks these chaps are just getting started and ALL beginning are difficult no matter what they are.

The second thought I had was the story of Boyd R. Braman in Omaha who managed a prestigious funeral home for many years and then out of the blue resigned his position and marched up 72nd St. about 8 blocks from where he had worked and bought an abandoned fast food restaurant and at age 65 remodeled the facility and started a funeral home.  Today the Braman Mortuary Company is building their second facility.  What I remember most about Boyd Braman’s courageous decision at age 65 was that most all the other Omaha funeral directors thought he was out of his mind.  I remember that only a single funeral director across the river in Council Bluffs actually wished Boyd success – and they had been classmates in Mortuary College in the 1940’s.

The thought crossed my mind as to how the funeral community in Denver was responding to Donald and George.  I was to learn in a short period of time from George and Donald that not everybody in funeral service was smiling and hoping for good tidings, no it was even worse; many were not taking them seriously and some are having a good laugh – that is too bad. I don’t know if today I could in good conscience laugh at somebody who is actually doing what I wish I could or would have done in my own life.  I can’t laugh at people who are trying, I used to be able to do that, but not anymore

The Malesich & Shirey Funeral Home is a nice place, pure and simple.  They have watched their pennies and have set to work a quality service system whereby they can really and truly handle any type of situation or circumstance that is requested.  The preparation room is top quality, and the furnishings are appropriate and tasteful.

George and Donald have predictably discovered that not everybody in Denver is supportive and encouraging and in fact reports that George and Donald have received are much like Boyd Braman received when he opened up in Omaha, the sentiments and opinions of this new venture are not nice.  It appears some think George and Donald are nuts (history repeating itself again), and while I am no psychologist I can assure anybody reading this that George Malesich and Donald Shirey are not nuts ,they are funeral business pioneers in a place called Arvada, Colorado.  

There will always be naysayers.  There will always be people on the sidelines laughing at the risk takers, it just seems to be part of the human condition, and even Jesus was misunderstood amongst his own.

I believe that it takes guts to pursue this type of voyage.  Because certainly somewhere down the line their funeral ship will encounter rough waters, but nothing ventured, nothing gained as the old saying goes.  The test for these two chaps will be how well they navigate the rough waters.  

As I spoke with these two delightful men I got envious myself.  All I have done mostly in my career is speak and write, and that is an odd way to make a living is it not, with one’s pen and tongue?  I wish them luck, they have already done an impressive number of calls, and walking around downtown Arvada with them it just seemed that everybody in town knew them or of them and they all seemed damned happy to have their own funeral home in town.  All funeral service is ultimately local, is it not?   What a joy is was to see what these guys are trying to do.  Bravo, boys!