Set aside all of your mental pictures of the stereotypical funeral director as a dour, monotone, intensely serious and well, funereal, undertaker.
At his 70th birthday-retirement party recently, longtime local funeral director Tom Helfenbein had ladies of all ages lining up to take a spin on the dance floor, jitterbugging to the oldies.
Stodgy and dour he’s not.
In fact, it’s his deep compassion, integrity, and concern for the wellbeing of the families he serves and the employees who love working for him that draw friends and colleagues to him.
Tom retired recently, but he’s not exactly the retiring type. “I can’t see him ever retiring completely,” said fellow director Sue Burleson, “at least I hope not.”
Burleson is only one of the many directors Helfenbein has mentored through the years. All three sons — Kirk, Chad, and Ryan — joined him in the business. And all of them hope to embody the qualities that have made Tom Helfenbein a beloved and respected funeral director in the mid-Shore area.
It took a lot of hard work, many days following sleepless nights of work, and ongoing training to lead Tom to his position as CEO of Fellows, Helfenbein and Newnam Funeral Home. The group of six family-owned and -operated funeral homes in Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot, and Anne Arundel Counties had its humble beginnings in Church Hill and Chester, Maryland.
Before Tom crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to become a rural undertaker, he grew up in Catonsville, graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic High School in 1963. He went to work briefly as a junior engineer for a marine dredging company.
He applied for a position posted in the classified ads by Hubbard Funeral Home, got the job, and began the half-hour commute to the eastern side of the city. “It was a side of Baltimore I didn’t know existed,” he said.
Tom worked for Howard Hubbard for seven years. One of his first jobs was dusting caskets. But eventually he did everything, from painting fences to remodeling apartments, in addition to learning the funeral business. “It was a great career starter,” Tom said. “It was a large enough funeral home to have several directors. They taught me a lot and gave me a solid foundation to be successful.”
Tom took his humility and work ethic with him throughout his career, and inspired his sons and employees. “He never looks at himself as higher than anyone else,” said youngest son Ryan, who manages Lasting Tributes Funeral Home in Annapolis. “He vacuums floors, plows snow, pulls weeds,” he said. “He will let you have a day off and fill in for you.”
Working for Howard Hubbard inspired Tom to become a licensed funeral director. He and his wife Bobbye married in September 1965, and the following Spring Tom began studying at mortuary school in Pittsburgh, living in a third-floor firetrap, “awful, awful apartment,” with three other students and eating “lots of spaghetti and fried bologna sandwiches,” he said. Bobbye stayed behind, living with her parents – against the advice of a priest friend who warned Tom, “Don’t you dare go to mortuary school without her.” Tom admits “it was a mistake” to leave her behind.
There were not many local mortuary schools at that time, and the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science was the closest to Baltimore. Tom would come home to work for Hubbard every Saturday, twice hitchhiking for the last leg from Frederick back home during the year of training he would need to pass his state exams.
He scored high grades in chemistry, was elected president of his class, and graduated from honors. In March 1967, he borrowed $100 from Hubbard to take the State Board Exam and passed it. “Mr. Hubbard always liked me,” Tom said, an affection which allowed Tom and Bobbye to borrow his beautiful vacation home in the mountains of western Maryland near Camp David on rare days off.
Tom’s concern for families took a different direction, however, as he left the funeral business to sell life insurance for a brief, successful stint. However, Hubbard wisely invited the couple to the Maryland State Funeral Directors’ annual ball. Soon afterward, he told Tom about Alice Lane’s selling the funeral business in Church Hill and Chester (on Kent Island), directed by Alice and her late husband Edgar. Hubbard had the capital to invest in the business as well as confidence in Tom’s talent and work ethic, so he invited Tom to return to funeral work as his partner, move to the Eastern Shore, and run the funeral home.
The couple, who by this time had two sons, Kirk, then five years old, and Chad, age two, had a big lifestyle change to consider. The insurance business was treating Tom well; he had been in it for a year and had just won a trip to Hawaii. He and Bobbye decided to use the trip to discuss their decision. A big drawback: They knew no one on the Eastern Shore and had no family there. Friends weighed in with their advice: “You don’t want to go over there,” they said, “they’re very clannish.”
The Helfenbein family made the move, however, and they would never regret it. Tom said there “was not a word of truth” to their friends’ warning about Eastern Shore folks. “They are wonderful, compassionate, warm people,” he said. The Eastern Shore opened to him “a whole wonderful life,” he said.
Tom and Bobbye added a second floor to the Kent Island funeral home, a satellite of the Lane Funeral Home. The family slept on the floor in the arrangement room while the home was being remodeled and painted. They lived above the funeral home for about 10 years.
At one point, “not knowing what I was doing,” Tom said, he attempted putting an addition on the home, but it was so poorly constructed it attracted the attention of neighbors who came to his rescue. “In this little community,” he said, “carpenters and craftsmen taught me practical skills” on land and the water.
Tom credits Kent Island native Wes Ruth with introducing Tom to “hardworking watermen” as well as bankers and accountants. “He was a big influence on my life,” Tom said. Contrary to the stereotype he was warned about, most natives of the Shore they encountered warmed to and respected Tom and Bobbye’s willingness to work hard, their compassion, and their naturally outgoing personalities.
Another mentor for whom Tom had great respect was Dr. Ralph Libby, a physician and pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Grasonville. “He was a man of immense character,” Tom said, “the Lord always came first with him.”
Local families, touched by the young couple’s caring, gave back. One widow would drop off soft crabs once a week during crabbing season. Others would occasionally drop off a dozen ears of corn or a homemade cake.
Alice Lane taught the young couple local funeral customs. Tom learned that farmers needed funerals scheduled in the morning to accommodate chores like milking cows. Watermen, on the other hand needed funerals scheduled in the afternoon. In Rock Hall, badges – flower baskets – were hung on the front door of the funeral home to signal a death in the community. And on Kent Island, the illuminated front porch light on the funeral home notified Islanders of a death. With only a weekly newspaper, watermen would spread the word.
The days – and nights – were often long and busy. Death calls then and now require an immediate response, and preparation of a loved one’s remains for burial would begin as soon as Tom arrived back at the preparation room in Church Hill. “The worst time to get a call was 10 or 11 p.m.,” Tom said. “You would end up working all night, and then have to work all day as well.” It wasn’t unusual for Tom to function on one hour of sleep in 72 hours.
Mrs. Lane was a wealth of advice in Church Hill where the preparation room was located, advising the couple to become involved in the community. The couple enrolled the kids in school, joined Kent Island United Methodist Church and the yacht club, became involved in community organizations like the Lions Club, Kent Island Volunteer Fire Company, the Masonic Lodge, and Hospice of Queen Anne’s County. Along the way, they made friends for life.
For the most part, the two older boys were sheltered from the funeral business because the preparation room was in Church Hill. Soon after moving from Catonsville, Tom and Bobbye overheard a little neighbor girl ask their little son Kirk, “Do you have caskets in your house?” “Baskets?” he asked, confused. It was the first time he had ever heard the word. Along with his two younger brothers, Kirk went on to work for his father in 1990 after earning his business degree from Towson. He is the director of the funeral home in Chestertown.
But when the preparation room moved to the Chester funeral home, Ryan, the youngest, went through an artistic phase that his teacher found unsettling. A note came home from school: “Would you please have Ryan,” it said, “stop drawing pictures of people in caskets.”
It wasn’t unusual on rainy days for as many as ten local kids to wait for the schoolbus downstairs in the foyer of the funeral home. Even so, it was hard to find a babysitter when they lived upstairs.
While the Helfenbeins’ work benefitted Islanders, “Kent Island was good for the boys,” said Bobbye, who stayed home and raised them. They had two constant pursuits: playing baseball and soccer, and trapping muskrats. The boys earned money by selling muskrat pelts for four dollars each that Bobbye delivered to Otto Capel on Bennett Point. An empty lot across from the funeral home was the site of many neighborhood pick-up ball games. As Islanders, the boys developed a love of sports on land and sea.
Even with his busy schedule, Tom tried to be active in his sons’ activities and school events. “I don’t know how my dad did it,” Chad, the middle son, said. “He worked long hours, he coached teams – all without cell phones.” One of Tom’s biggest regrets, according to Kirk, was that his dad “couldn’t attend all our games.”
The boys were raised on the notion that “good luck follows hard work,” Tom said, “do what’s necessary, take care of what’s possible – then you will accomplish the impossible.”
“He has great core values,” Chad said of his father: “Pay bills before you eat. Go to work before you play. Don’t complain that you’re too busy.”
Tom’s hard work translated into success, and with success, a need for more help. Alice Lane eventually came on board in Church Hill answering phones, and on the Island, beloved neighbor Elizabeth “Miss Lizzie” Taylor, who at 80 years old, answered the phone when Tom was out of the office. But as the business expanded, so did the need for someone who could dig graves, set monuments, and apprentice as a future director.
Relief came in the form of 18-year-old Steve Fleegle, Howard Hubbard’s grandson. Hubbard asked Tom to train Fleegle right out of high school, and the young man lived downstairs at the Kent Island funeral home while he apprenticed with Tom and attended mortuary school in Catonsville. “Stevie” even dug a grave by hand in only two hours in Stevensville where the clay soil required a pick and shovel. “In the summer, that soil was dry like brick,” Tom said. Incidentally, one of Tom’s proudest professional accomplishments was leading the establishment of a perpetual care fund for the Stevensville Cemetery.
Fleegle eventually went on to manage the Church Hill funeral home and create a new monument business, and today he is partners with Tom at Fleegle and Helfenbein Funeral Home in Greensboro, Maryland.
It wasn’t all work and no play, however. When he’s not driving too fast, he’s on the water fishing or crabbing, using the skills old Kent Island watermen taught him. Or he may be out on the golf course with friends. Tom and Bobbye like to get away on vacation in the Caribbean. And the Helfenbein clan has increased by three daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren who visit often.
Chad had not planned on going into the funeral business. After college he had lined up a job in sales with a Florida yacht company, but the boat sales business took a downturn, and he reconsidered his career. Tom invited him to come to work for him, and Chad became a licensed funeral director in 1995.
While Tom’s primary legacy is his family, Bobbye says that her husband has made a “huge difference” to the Mid-Shore area. The plaques he’s been given “would fill a room,” she said. “He wanted to better the community because he feels such a debt of gratitude to the community.”
Tom has served on church committees, charity fundraising enterprises, several boards of directors, including serving as a board member of Farmers National Bank, and as Chairman of the Board of Directors of CNB, formerly Centreville National Bank. “Tom is a fabulous director,” said F. Winfield Trice, President and CEO of CNB. “You could go on and on talking about Tom’s good traits. He’s just a delightful person and easy to form a friendship with. He’s interested, engaged, and thoughtful. He studies the issues and is supportive and challenging; he wants the best possible outcome for the bank,” Trice said.
Tom is also enthusiastic about Chesapeake College and his service as a director of the college’s Foundation. In 2009, the Queen Anne’s County Chamber of Commerce recognized him as “Business Leader of the Year.”
For all of his accomplishments, Tom’s overriding motivation is “helping families heal through the process of losing a loved one,” he said.
His passion – and compassion – permeates the culture of the funeral homes. According to Kirk, his father “has high standards but also tolerance for mistakes.” Every director or employee is asked to subscribe to a simple principle: “Always treat families as if they were your own, and you’ll never have a problem,” Kirk said.
“He is always putting people ahead of himself,” Kirk said, “which has made him a good funeral director and a great human being.”
The other two brothers agree. “He thinks there’s no wrong in anybody,” Chad said. “He always makes everybody’s problems our problems to make other people’s lives better.”
“His number one passion in life is helping families and helping people heal properly after a death,” Ryan said, “he’ll do anything it takes. If there’s a true definition of an undertaker, it’s Tom Helfenbein.”
Tom’s sons don’t hesitate to recount Tom’s many acts of kindness, like his twice-weekly trips to the Western Shore to shave his disabled friend, and the year gifts were collected on Christmas Eve for people to drop by the Kent Island funeral home and take what they needed, and forgiving a fellow funeral director for backing out of a handshake partnership in which he had invested much time and treasure.
Kirk recalls the time Tom took under his wing a woman from Dominion who had lost her brother. When Tom visited her, “She was cooking on a wood cookstove and she was feeling around for things; she couldn’t see,” he recalled. When she went in to view her brother’s viewing, “she had to get really close to him,” he said. She couldn’t afford to pay a specialist, so – with no fanfare — Tom drove her to Dr. Joseph Acquilla, a Chestertown ophthalmologist who had just moved to the Eastern Shore. She underwent cataract surgery that restored her sight, and Tom paid the bill. “It was one of my proudest moments as a funeral director,” Tom said, “because I didn’t say, ‘It’s not my problem.’”
At Tom’s retirement breakfast hosted by his employees, he was asked to say a few words. “All he did was praise his employees,” Kirk said. Tom was back at work the following Monday.
According to Tom, the biggest challenge in the funeral business today is change. Bucking the current trend of big conglomerates’ buying out small family-owned funeral homes, he joined with Newnam Funeral Home in Talbot County and Fellows Funeral Home in northern Queen Anne’s and Kent Counties “to prevent the conglomerates from getting a foothold on the Eastern Shore.”
Paradoxically, the same impetus of keeping service personal and local has also driven Tom to constantly improve the funeral homes’ quality and broaden their range of services. “If you don’t have 20 things that differentiate you from the competition,” he said, “you need to get out of the business.”
That’s why innovations like real-time transmission of funeral services through Skype, opening a flower shop, offering pet cremations, and helping individuals with pre-arranging their funeral plans help Fellows, Helfenbein and Newnam Funeral Homes, Tom emphasizes, “do what’s good for people and really help families in the healing process and celebrate a life.”