Funeral Director Les Grummons was at an Oneonta cemetery for a service one day when a 15 year-old local youth came over and introduced himself.
It was young Walter Kent, the son of the church’s secretary who’d picked up a job mowing lawns at the cemetery.
“He said he was thinking about being a funeral director one day,” said Grummons. He told Kent to stop down to the funeral home to talk.
That discussion would lead to a career in funeral service for Walter J. Kent, the 2016-17 President of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.
Kent’s mother had mentioned her son’s interest in the profession, Grummons said, and he realized he shared a similarity with teen.
Kent’s father was a railway worker, so neither he nor Grummons came from families where funeral directing was passed down from grandfather to father to son.
“Walter came from the outside completely, so we really had quite a bit in common,” said Grummons, who served as the 1983-84 NYSFDA President.
A New York State-licensed Funeral Director since 1981 and a Certified Funeral Celebrant, Kent, 57, owns the Walter J. Kent Funeral Home in Elmira, NY.
The avid do-it-yourselfer considers Grummons a great influence in his career.
“Honestly, Les is the reason I am where I am today,” said Kent, who remembers his parents urging him to “be a doctor, a lawyer or an undertaker” when he was young.
Grummons told him to keep an eye on the obituaries and give a call if he noticed a service coming up there so he could help out. Kent mowed the lawn, washed the cars, dusted and vacuumed at Grummons’ funeral home for a while.
He didn’t have much experience with death. He was 13 when his grandfather passed away. He said he was too scared to even go to that funeral.
At age 16, Kent recalls hanging out with his high school sweetheart at home when his mom came to him and said Les wanted him to call. Grummons asked him to “come down and help me dress this body.”
“At that point, I had never seen a dead body in my life. I swallowed hard and I said ‘OK’” Kent said.
He said he mostly watched as Grummons dressed the elderly gentleman, did some cosmetic work, placed the man in the casket and brought him upstairs for the funeral service.
“Then I was done. I walked out the door. I didn’t pass out, I didn’t throw up, I said `I can do this job.’”
He worked for Grummons throughout high school.
Kent doesn’t believe it took much influence. He carried the belief system of the son of Catholic parents and always found himself able to “relate to all people.”
“I’ve told people this over and over. If I wasn’t a funeral director right now, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” Kent said.
Without the funeral service knowledge that’s passed down in multi-generation funeral homes, Kent found himself learning by seeing how others, like Grummons, did things.
“I really enjoyed hanging around with him and watching the process and just absorbing it all,” Kent said.
Kent studied Mortuary Science at the Simmons Institute of Funeral Service, graduating in 1980, and then worked for a local funeral home for more than 20 years before building his Elmira funeral home that opened in 2003.
Building the funeral home didn’t entail just watching contractors on the job. Kent wallpapered the facility, installed wiring for the parking lot lights, installed the computers, TV and stereo wiring, sided the building himself and installed blocking between the rafters so the HVAC system could be installed.
Today, the Walter J. Kent Funeral Home is a second-generation family business. Walter and his wife of 31 years, Diane, have a son Tyler, who has been wearing a suit since he was 14 and helping his dad - like Kent helped Grummons.
Tyler Kent – now a graduate of the NYSFDA Leadership Academy – went to SUNY-Brockport and earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration before deciding he wanted to go to Mortuary School and be a funeral director.
To Grummons, Kent brings important qualities to the leadership role in the 900+ member association of New York State funeral directors.
“He’s a self-made person and that’s a big asset,” Grummons said. “Walt’s not afraid to take a chance. If he sees something out there that’s going to value him and his business, he jumps at it.”
For his upcoming year leading the NYSFDA, Kent said he wants to focus on the next generation of funeral directors and foster the development of a young professionals group.
“Something that the younger funeral directors can feel included in – to give them a little more incentive to be involved. I wish I had that,” Kent said.
He envisions the group being a place where like-aged funeral directors can gather in a group setting and discuss issues – funeral home employee to employee as opposed to owners.
“We’ll give them a forum of their own. They can elect their own representatives, maybe they could have a representative on the board,” Kent said.
Kent said another goal for the 2016-17 NYSFDA Presidency is to visit as many local funeral directors associations as he can – to “show them the state association is really there for them.”
On the legislative side of things, Kent expects much of the concentration will focus on a big issue facing New York State funeral directors – preneed funeral insurance.
Legislation that bans the practice in the Empire State expires in 2017. It’s an issue the NYSFDA has battled for decades, and the fight is expected to resume during Kent’s tenure as NYSFDA President.
Prior to his service as NYSFDA President-elect for the 2015-16 year, Kent was a regional governor and regional director of NYSFDA as well as a member of the NYSFDA Budget and Finance Committee and member of the Directors Choice Credit Union Board of Directors.
Kent is also a member and past treasurer of the Finger Lakes Funeral Directors Association, a member of the National Funeral Directors Association, a board member of the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce and Meals on Wheels of Chemung County and founder of TLC Limo.
When he’s not serving families struggling with a loss or traveling throughout New York State on NYSFDA business, Kent, a woodworker by hobby, will be cruising down the highway on his motorcycle.