TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Three’s not a crowd
Owners find calling in helping others at Hinchliff-Pearson-West
By Rebecca Susmarski
GALESBURG — The owners of Hinchliff-Pearson-West Inc. learned over the years that getting through a tragic circumstance — or in their case, several per week — is easier with friends nearby for support.
As Carrie Walters, Todd Ettinger and Alan Palmer built their careers at the funeral home, their working relationship blossomed into a friendship rooted in their mutual passion for comforting those who lost their loved ones. Whether “tagging in” for each other to help with multiple funerals in a row or downloading songs for services together at a moment’s notice, the trio operate the business like a well-oiled machine, and they know its parts inside and out.
“One time there was a gal who had passed away, and she loved Luke Bryan and she hunted and she fished,” Walters said. “So I looked at Al and said, ‘go download Luke Bryan’s ‘Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day.’ At the end (the family) was like, ‘that was perfect; that was wonderful.’ We sit back there, we pay attention and we’ve been able to catch little details like that.”
The friends also rely on each other during tougher times. When Walters’ father Pete died in 2013, Ettinger and Palmer supported her both as friends and funeral directors.
“It was a realization at the time that I needed them, and of just how much a family does rely on a funeral director,” Walters said. “I think I experienced it for the first time when my dad passed — that we do do a lot for families.”
Walters, Ettinger and Palmer have each worked at the funeral home for more than 20 years, over 70 combined. Their reverence for the Hinchliff-Pearson-West model of service inspired them to buy the business when the previous owners — Wayne Hull, George Peterson and David Pearson — decided to sell it in 2016.
When the trio took over in March 2017, they assumed the operation of two funeral homes, one in Galesburg at 1070 W. Fremont St. and one at 206 N. Washington St. in Abingdon. They also inherited HPW’s long legacy of service. Jack Hinchliff and Richard Pearson bought the business from Hinchliff’s father, Ray, and Ray’s business partner, John Wilson, in the 1950s. Jack and Richard later partnered with Chan West of the Kimber and West Funeral Home, and they changed the business’ name to Hinchliff-Pearson-West.
The three friends’ respect for that tradition, and the people they serve, has not grown worn with time. They remain on call for removals every fourth night of the week, 24/7. They wear suits to every removal, whether the call comes in at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.
“That’s the core foundation of what we do, is taking care of people,” Ettinger said.
Some other duties have come along with ownership, and the trio adjusted to them as they have everything else in the past — together. They spoke with The Register-Mail about how they decided to become the business’ owners, the lessons they’ve learned from each other over the years, and more.
RM: How did you get into the funeral service business?
CW: I was a junior in high school when I decided I wanted to go to mortuary school. I had a class over at the high school and there was a really large funeral going on at the time that just grabbed my attention. And (then) I don’t know how it got brought up at church, but my youth leader worked here (at Hinchliff-Pearson-West). So he invited me over to take a tour and answered all my questions, and I just kind of stayed. There was a need for it; you have to have a certain quality, I think, to be able to do what we do.
AP: I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in high school, and a couple of friends were going down to (Southern Illinois University) in this field, and I thought, “well, that sounds interesting.” I just kept pursuing it and I got into the mortuary science program. Back then it was only a two-year program at SIU, and I always thought if it was something I didn’t want to do, it was only two years so I could always change directions. But I just stayed with it.
TE: I had gone to SIU out of high school as an accounting major in the college of business, and about halfway through the first year I (realized), “what am I thinking?” I actually worked a job on campus with a gentleman who had just graduated from the mortuary program, and I didn’t even realize they had such a program. So I visited with him and we talked about the nature of funeral service, and the main aspect of helping people is what I found to be appealing. I had a desire to live a life of service that way. It’s definitely a rewarding career when you know you’re helping people. For me, it’s just doing what I do, but I don’t always realize the impact I make with people and helping them at such a time.
RM: What was a time when you didn’t realize you affected a client in that way, and they surprised you?
CW: Most of the time when you sit with a family, you can get a sense of their character or how they interact. I had a family where, through the whole thing, I felt nothing. I got done (with the service) and I thought, “hmm. I wonder what they thought of that.” Then, less than a week later, I received this huge package from Cooks & Co. from this family, and I was floored. It truly was unexpected.
TE: About 20 or 18 years ago, I took care of arrangements for a gentleman’s father. This guy doesn’t live in town and I had not seen him since — until just last year, when his mom died and he came to town. He knew me, remembered me and he came up and talked to me to say I made such an impact on him.
CW: That makes you go home and think, “this is why I do what I do.”
AP: My incident is a little different. I deal with more of the (cosmetic) work in preparing and making sure everyone looks good. I remember with one family we took care of, I knew the lady for most of my life, and she died of a brain tumor. The cancer had taken its toll upon her and it didn’t look like her when she came here. And when they came in for their viewing, one of the sons looked at her and said, “now that’s my mom.” That’s where I take a lot of pride in this business, and that was probably one of the most touching moments I’ve had in this business, just knowing I was able to give them their final viewing of their mom as what she should have looked like.
CW: We’ve had a couple of military services here, unfortunately, and one of the gentlemen had a couple of young children. It was a service where they didn’t recognize him and they did not want to view him. But Al made it possible so the little girl could, coming in from a side view, see the top of her dad’s head. And that was enough for this little girl to know that that was her dad. ... There’s been different circumstances where a family thinks they’re not going to be able to see their loved one, and for Alan that’s a challenge, and he will work hours to make that happen.
RM: This work can definitely take an emotional toll. How do you deal with it when you go home?
CW: Running is my therapy, so I run when I’m able to. And I have kids, go to baseball games. It’s hard to leave things at the door here and not take it home.
TE: Families don’t want to see us crying with them; they want the support that they need. I remember one situation years ago where I did my crying before they got here, because the situation was so tragic for them. I knew, “I need to get it out of my system because they need me to get them through this.” Those situations aren’t always, but they do exist, and you have to maintain a separation.
CW: Not to say that we haven’t broke down at a service. We try to get our crying out of the way, but there’s moments where you just have to cry with them.
AP: I think another one of the difficult parts of this job is, you’re always available. We’re available 24/7 and it’s wearing just being on call every fourth night. We’re pretty fortunate that it’s every fourth night and not every night or every other night, but it’s just always being available, and that can be taxing on you.
RM: How did you come to own the business?
TE: (The previous owners) had open bids to outside firms, and we had gotten together and decided we were going to throw our name in the hat. I don’t know exactly how they decided upon us; they certainly felt like they wanted to keep it local, and they did. I don’t know if they anticipated the three of us coming together.
CW: I don’t even know if we really discussed it. We are like a brother and sister team, and we truly are the best of friends. We know a lot about each other, so I think it was almost assumed it was going to be us three.
RM: Why did you decide to keep the name?
TE: It’s a very recognizable name with a reputation that both sets of previous owners established that we’re a part of as well. I don’t need to have my name on a sign, necessarily. It’s an institution people know, even if you hear HPW.
AP: Or if you hear “Hinchcliff.” (laughs)
CW: Everybody makes that mistake. I went to the orthodontist a couple weeks ago, and he said, “oh, is this a law firm you work for?” (laughs)
RM: Carrie said you’re the best of friends. What do you do for fun together outside of work?
TE: Actually nothing for a long time. Alan and I had children more similar in age and Carrie had children later, but back when our kids were little and Carrie was single, there was a lot.
CW: Just cookouts and family events with their kids. We used to get together quite a bit.
TE: Then as families grow up, you start following your family everywhere you go. But that foundation is there. Beyond friendship, I do believe it is a family situation here. We’re a tight-knit group.
RM: What lessons have you learned from each other over the years?
CW: That everybody is different. The three of us have very strong personalities and we are very different.
AP: I certainly am the most laid-back.
CW: (laughs) He is. He’s the neutral one of the group. But I would say patience is the best.
TE: And respect. We’ve all worked together a long time and we know each other’s personalities and where our limits are. I think, though, that this process of taking over this business has tested us but also made us stronger. It’s a little bit different relationship. It’s like a —
AP: Don’t say “marriage.”
TE: I was going to. (laughs)
AP: See? We finish each other’s sentences.
CW: We could be in the middle of the chapel full of people and dismissing a service, and we can literally look at each other and we know exactly what (each other’s) doing, and then it gets done. It’s the craziest thing. We seriously can read each other’s mind.
RM: What have been some unique requests you’ve received from clients for funeral services?
TE: We’ve had people bring in animals, motorcycles, golf carts, boats...
CW: We took a gentleman to the cemetery strapped in his fishing boat. Horse and carriage, in the back of a pickup truck — within legalities, we’ll do anything the family wishes.
TE: That’s part of that whole grief process and honoring someone’s life. It’s bringing those personalities out.
AP: I enjoy doing the videos for people. People bring in their photos, we scan them and we put them on a DVD and play it during the visitation or funeral, and I absolutely love sorting the photos out and putting them on the computer. You get to see the family and the individual, especially when they were younger, growing up, and it’s like a timeline. You get to know the person.
RM: Do families stay in touch with you after the services?
CW: Oh yeah. Just a couple weeks ago, a lady told me I made it to her Christmas card list. There are lots of families that will invite you to stay for their luncheon, and some of them we do.
TE: You make connections with people that’s longstanding.
RM: Carrie mentioned earlier that it takes certain qualities to do what you do. What are the skills you need most to succeed?
CW: You certainly have to be patient and caring, because you’re talking to a family at probably one of the worst times of their life. You have to be understanding of the fact that they are grieving.
TE: Sometimes people say, “I don’t understand how you can do it. Isn’t it sad being around there all the time?” But for us, it’s rewarding to have this level of stability to provide for a family who is in a grief situation — where we’re kind of their foundation that keeps them afloat and gets them through this process. And you’ve got to be flexible, because a phone could ring and everything will change.
CW: You think you’ve got your day planned, then you’ve got another death and your plans shift a little bit.
Rebecca Susmarski: (309) 343-7181, ext. 261; rsusmarski@ register-mail. com; @RSusmarski