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March 03, 2005

Uncle Les

Back on February 20, my favorite aunt and uncle celebrated their birthdays with a group of about 30 family members and friends. There was a mix of hard sleeting rain and snow going on, outside, and so everyone agreed it was a terrific turn-out for that sort of weather. But then, they were that sort of people. Same birthdate, she at 88 and he at 87.

Lucy was a distant relative to the May Department Store family, and Lester was a young funeral director in the days when they still called themselves undertakers. They moved around Michigan a few times but finally settled in what I still think of as my home town, Clinton, about 55 miles west of downtown Detroit. This put them about seven miles from their mother's house, in Manchester, where my own father and mother met, got married, and started their own life together.

Lester was the first of 12 kids to graduate from high school, and first to graduate from college. He was the only one of his siblings to have seen army service, in North Africa during the war, at the time a mortician without the formal background. He made up for that on the G.I. Bill, at Wayne State University, and by the mid-1950s or so had settled in Clinton, cater-corner from my father's house, in the funeral home I grew up thinking had “always” been his.

He was better than good at what he did. I worked for him in minor ways, off and on through my high school years, at more funerals than I can count. He was a perfectionist and thoroughly professional, and he expected and got my very best — and I was glad to give it. He was the one who undertook to keep his head and get things done, when so many around him were unable to be objective, overcome with grief. Even more than my own parents, he taught me right from wrong, a rigid unbending interpretation that has kept me out of more scrapes than anything else I can think of. (The scrapes I did get into were the ones where I forgot what he’d told me, but that’s a different entry.)

Years after I left Clinton, I spoke with the president of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association, who knew Lester very well. It’s a humbling thing to hear such praise heaped so knowledgably on a relative, from someone who was so obviously sincere about what he said. Lester was more than just a professional. He was an example, for others to follow in a profession so unjustly tarnished by Jessica Mitford and other critics.

My cousins, his three children, all understandably saw him from a different standpoint. I don’t dare speak for them, but I believe they'd agree he was hell on wheels as a taskmaster, and an impossible act to follow. I saw him as a wonderful insightful man who’d had the uncommon good sense to see his real life’s-mate when he found her, and between the two of them I had unofficial parents when my own folks were busy elsewhere.

A few months back, I finally got the opportunity to do something for them, when my father came to me and told me he’d had two gravesites set aside in a family plot, in the same cemetery where Lester had conducted so much of his life. Les and Lucy wanted to be buried beside family, and almost before my dad could ask me, I told him, go ahead and give him the two sites. At no charge, even if I have to pay you back myself for what they cost. That's just a given, the right thing to do because I owe both of these people so much, and always will. They were overjoyed at the news. I came away from that absolutely radiant. Not for me, but for them. Finally, a way to say, I love you two, I’ll do whatever it takes to remove what obstacles I can.

At that birthday party, 11 days ago, Lester was almost overcome with gratitude that so many people had made the effort to get there, including a second cousin and his son from my maternal grandmother’s side of the family (the first I’d ever met). His eyesight was just about gone in recent years, but he still navigated the room, saying hello to everyone.

“I want you to come over and see us,” he whispered in my ear. “I want you to write my story. The things I’ve done aside from funerals.” I knew some of it already. I told him I’d get over when I could. Privately I knew it would be a lot of work — but he had done so much, and since I was the only other family member with military service, I thought I could do real justice to that part of telling his story.

Today, my father called me twice.

Yesterday, Lester was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with pneumonia. While there, he suffered a heart attack and was life-flighted to St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital, outside Ann Arbor. He died at roughly 5:00 p.m. this afternoon, surrounded by his family.

Now it is time for others to keep the clear heads and undertake to get done what must be. A fine man has died, and now it is time for all who knew him to grieve.

Posted by Weaselteeth at March 3, 2005 08:28 PM


WT.. you have my deepest symapathy and my heartfelt prayers. It is so hard to lose those that have meant so much to us in life. Rest assured he is in a better place, looking down on you, waiting for you to write his story. By your words I can tell this man meant alot more to you then just an Uncle... God bless his wife during this time of grief.

Posted by: AmericanMom at March 3, 2005 09:12 PM

WT.. you have my deepest symapathy also my friend.

I am lucky as my favorite uncle is a live yet, and only 1hrs away. He is 86.

My best to you and N on this very sad day in your life.

“I want you to write my story. The things I’ve done aside from funerals.” You will do him well WT.

God bless you all during this unhappy time of grief.

Posted by: Walkstall at March 3, 2005 10:51 PM

My condolences my friend. I'm sorry for your loss.

It sounds like he led a full and happy life. If my passing could be marked by being influential on those closest to me I think I would die a happy man.

Your uncle sounds like one of the unheralded greats.


Posted by: Queshank at March 4, 2005 03:06 PM

What a wonderful piece, WT. He and your aunt sound like wonderful people. It's quite an honor for you that he wants you to write his story. I know you can and will do him proud.

Deepest sympathies to you, N, and your families.

Posted by: LadyBug at March 4, 2005 06:44 PM

WT, my sincere condolences...he sounded like a fine man and a true role model.

Posted by: Lintree at March 4, 2005 06:52 PM

What a beautiful tribute to your uncle. I am so sorry for your loss, I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

Posted by: Jeannie at March 4, 2005 07:00 PM

Wease, my my heartfelt sympathy to you and your family.

Posted by: Brandy09 at March 4, 2005 08:12 PM


Our sincere condolences to you and your family.

As always, you have brought life to your memories through your writing.

Lori and family

Posted by: Tater at March 4, 2005 09:37 PM

My deepest condolences, WT.

Posted by: JFA at March 5, 2005 09:26 AM

Thank you all for your comments. Visitation begins today, in the funeral home where he spent decades of his life, and the funeral will be Monday, in a church the family believes should be large enough for the number of people attending. Considering Lester's impact on his community and this region, I hope they have a Standing Room Only crowd and even have to broadcast the service over the p.a. system, out into the parking lot.

Posted by: WT at March 5, 2005 12:05 PM

Today, I must say, was easily the most memorable funeral I have ever attended. Not only was it one of the funniest, it was very nearly as packed in that church as I had hoped it would be.

Fully 200 people showed up, and my second cousins (Lester's granddaughters) gave moving, insightful commentaries which included hilarious stories of his exploits being what the pastor described as "the huggingest man you'd ever want to meet."

My heartfelt thanks to Marissa, who voluntarily gave up her spot in the first co-ed pallbearing team I'd ever seen (much less been part of). You were wonderful in your address---far better than my little piece here. I will never be able to repay you for your graciousness.

I think Lester enjoyed the whole thing, sitting in the balcony with his shoes off and his feet up on a rail, telling us all that we almost got it right.

Posted by: WT at March 7, 2005 11:41 PM