Trial by fire helps make life decision

I arrived at Evanson’s in Lemmon, in June of 1961, at the end of the first half-century of the firm, to see if I was cut out to be a mortician.

Ollie and Evie Evanson

Posted August 16, 2012

By Eldon Jensen

Special to the Leader


I arrived at Evanson’s in Lemmon, in June of 1961, at the end of the first half-century of the firm, to see if I was cut out to be a mortician. Note that the term “undertaker” had transitioned to newer terminology. Raised on a ranch east of Faith, S.D., I had just completed my first year of college (pre-mortuary) and during that spring had written every funeral home within a 100 mile radius of Faith, seeking an internship.

During my high school junior year I had visited with instructors and my pastor about medical school, going into the Ministry and saw that mortuary science would be a combination of both. I knew the ranch life with building construction and carpentry as a side business would not be for me. An older brother and his family were already on the ranch and my dad (born in 1885, one year older than Dick Evanson) was still working at age 75 at both endeavors. How little did I know what the years 1961 and 1962 would bring!

It was a beautiful Sunday morning that spring day in 1961 when I sat across the coffee table from Evie and Ollie in their home a block south and across the street from Evanson Funeral Home on 4th Ave.

I won’t forget the homemade rolls, juice and hospitality; and everything “just-so” in the setting. I tried my best to not be a ranch/carpenter kid from east of Faith. The work experience for an intern was laid out very succinctly and after our visit, without a tour of the store or the funeral home, I knew Lemmon would be the location for my internship. From prior interviews, in what a young person would call “attractive places” like the Black Hills and the Missouri River area; I didn’t really want to be in Lemmon.

But my dad had said “you’d better go up there…they sent a nice letter.”

Those prior contacts and interviews had led to my presumption that I would be the janitor and the automobile maintenance person. From the Evansons, I heard of the expectations of a Funeral Professional, and the business of a furniture store. Of course these extra chores would be included, but would not be the major role of an intern.

My parents told me to be home in Faith by 11 a.m. for church, so it wasn’t the longest interview, but at the end of our visit Evie asked, “When can you start?”

Arriving home, my dad asked, “Well, where are you going?”

“Lemmon,” was the answer I gave and, “I told them I’d be there in early June.”

Dad had that “I told you so” look on his face. I guess Dads have a way of looking at the big picture.

That summer of 1961, I had much to learn. It was a busy three months. On my arrival I learned quickly from Nellie Gossman, who was working at the store, how to dust, wash windows and oil the wood floor. Harold Crow worked at the store with deliveries and flooring installations as well as helping Evie with driving and assisting at funerals.

Evie was away from the business when I arrived and Dick showed me around the funeral home and my room on the second floor. From Dick I learned of previous interns, but they were Lemmon residents and didn’t “live” in the funeral home.

There was Howard Nelson, who later moved to Bozeman where he joined relatives in the operation of Dokken-Nelson funeral home.

Lowell Hanks went forward to serve the profession in California; Bill Bartholomew worked in Alaska but maintained his license in South Dakota, returning seasonally to help at Evanson Jensen. Many high school students found work after school and during the summer months at the furniture store.

It didn’t take long for the youngsters in town to learn that a new apprentice had arrived at the funeral home. Late in those warm summer evening of ’61 I’d hear voices outside my window which faced the street.

“Is he nuts?”

“He must be broke to live above the funeral home.” (Pretty good guess.) But I have to give a lot of credit to Dick, who with his wife, Sadie; later to be called Grandma and Grandpa Evanson to my family, lived next door.

Knowing I had never been in a funeral home before, Dick carefully showed me through the back entry, into the professional preparation area, through the chapel and up the stairs to my “quarters.” I’ll never forget his words of wisdom.

“Those placed in our care are of immeasurable worth to those who grieve. Even though we must do our work as if they are inanimate, we must remember the trust placed in us and keep in mind that these are the temples of the soul,” he said.

It was a busy summer and a learning experience. During my three-month internship of ’61 we had 25 funeral services, more than enough ambulance calls and the furniture business kept us busy in our spare time.

One service for a Native American lady in McIntosh taught me quite a lesson.

If a rough box was requested for the burial at that distance, we would construct it with one end open, then load the casket into the funeral coach through the open end of the box and transport everything in the one vehicle.

This time the burial was a distance from McIntosh in the Standing Rock Community of Black Horse. After the funeral we reloaded the casket and flowers and processed to the cemetery. The casket bearers helped unload the casket and held it until Evie and I could unload the box and cemetery equipment, then replaced it into the funeral coach. All was well until lowering the box into the hand dug grave.

The old saying, “you can’t put a square peg into round hole,” well this was a rectangular peg being placed in an elliptical hole. It was wedged at an angle and I was instructed to “wiggle” it free by lying across a two by six at the end of the grave. Well, it wiggled free alright, but I evidently held on too long and did a perfect flip into the box, landing on my back six feet down. Crawling out, I saw many hands covering their mouths to suppress the giggles and formerly teary eyes twinkle into a little smile.

We proceeded to set the grass grave covering and lowering equipment, the casket bearers (called Pallbearers in those days) carried the casket to the grave and the Priest conducted the committal service. I was still trying to brush myself off, hiding behind the funeral coach. As the years have gone by, I realized that during a sad time in people’s lives it doesn’t hurt to bring a little smile to their experience; but I didn’t intend to do it that day or in that way at Black Horse.

Having been coached and trained in vocal music at church and school, I was once asked to sing “In the Garden.”

My quick response of “don’t you want me in the church” settled the family so we could continue what was a very emotional arrangements meeting.

That fall I enrolled in the Department of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota. An 18 -year-old ranch kid from Western Dakota wasn’t so sure of traveling to the big city, but assured by the Evansons that I had satisfactorily passed my first three months of internship and that Dick had survived six weeks in 1912 at the school, I enrolled.

It was also Evie’s Alma Mater in 1941, so that being the closest college, the decision was made. Little did I know at the time that the first months there would be interrupted.

I “roomed” at a funeral home close to the university, working nights and weekends, taking calls, cleaning, washing funeral cars and studying. My mother hadn’t felt well in late summer and in September went to Mayo Clinic for an examination. The diagnosis was breast cancer which had spread to other areas. With the limited treatment procedures available at the time, she decided to return home where nature would take its course. I dropped out of school and returned home to Faith to be with my family. She passed away on Oct. 25 and then began my first test or “trial by fire” in pursuing a career in funeral service.

But giving credit where credit is due, the Evansons, my pastor and most of my family saw me through. At this point, I was reminded that Evie wanted me back the next summer and any time in between to help out. There was a “like family” feeling developing. I spent the next two months working some with Evansons, spending time with my Dad at home in Faith and on the ranch.

It was finally bonding time for us, as being the youngest of our family and being born when he was 57 put quite a spread in our father-son relationship. Mother was 19 years younger than he, so of course her death changed his plans completely. I had nieces and nephews that were just a year or two younger than me, and were the apples of his eye, as to be expected. That time was another educational experience and time of acceptance and adjustment for both of us. Now I knew what people go through at the time of loosing someone they love and the recovery period needed.

I returned to the University and work in Minneapolis in January 1962 and then spent the summer again in Lemmon. Evansons assured me that there would be a future with them in Lemmon, but I needed to decide if my goal would be to work in the big city like previous interns they trained, or be satisfied with a comfortable living and serving families personally known in a small town, rural area setting. That decision came easily. Then it was announced that the furniture business had lost money in prior years and this had to change in order to make room for me in the total operation of Evansons.

I don’t think I replied at the time, but understood that my “internship” was beginning as well in the retail/business sector of Main Street.

Then in October of ’62, while back at the University and taking double loads to catch up for my previous absence, the “tested by fire” atmosphere returned. My father, brother and sister-in-law, who were operating the ranch, all died in an auto accident near Austin, Minn. They were enroute to a National Cattle Congress meeting in Waterloo, Iowa. Fortunately for me, our Pastor from Faith was in the Cities for meetings, took me under his wings and drove me home. Harold Crow was sent by Evie to Austin to bring my family home and two days later we were all gathered at Evanson Funeral Home making triple funeral arrangements.

Somehow, with Evie’s guidance, we got through all the obituary and legal information. Then he asked, “Would you consider helping me, get things ready?”

There came the test…was I at that point, after only two summer internships able to help care for these inanimate objects, temples of the soul, prized possessions of my own family and flesh and blood? Evie and I proceeded and sometimes I felt a gentle touch of reassurance on my shoulder. It was that afternoon that I realized in order to continue in this profession, we as caregivers to others, need the time to say our goodbyes, realize the separation of the body from the soul, just like other families must do to continue their walk in life.

After graduation from college in May of 1963 I returned again to resume my internship, which was accomplished by Dec. 31.

Turning 21 that month, a requirement for licensure, I received my license after State and National Board exams. Evanson’s now had a licensed Funeral Director/Embalmer on staff, but still an intern in the furniture business. Invariably, long days of furniture work, carpet installation, cleaning and deliveries led to the phone ringing in the night or early morning for the ambulance or a funeral call. I was assigned the telephone after hours, and could only leave it if the old diverter dial knobs were set to a number that would answer, like in one of the Evanson family’s homes, or where ever I was going.

Technology change had to come as far as I was concerned and eventually it did….to the extreme as far as the elders of the firm were concerned. We even had an electric typewriter by then and the pre-bound, hand written Funeral Record books were replaced with loose leaf binders so we could type the pages. After Mary Jean and I married and moved to our first apartment, 374-3805 came with us as well as the diverter and has been with us until our “retirement”. Faithfully she answered the phone in my absence, forgoing many of her interests or social activities to “be on call.”

In 1968 the firm name changed to Evanson Jensen Furniture and Funeral Home, when Mary Jean and I purchased a 25 percent interest in both businesses.