Gwinnett Daily Post

Copyright © September 2004

 

A LIFETIME WITH DEATH

Tom Wages Celebrates 80 Years of Life

 

By Christy Smith

Staff Correspondent

 

LAWRENCEVILLE - Mr. Tom Wages will turn 80 years old September 22, and, through his lifetime with death, he has touched almost every family in Gwinnett County. Wages has been the dignitary of Gwinnett funerals for 56 years, comforting grieving families and burying their dead. He’s lived a remarkable life and not just through a long career of service to others. Wages is a member of the "greatest generation," having grown up in the Depression, participated in World War II’s Normandy invasion, and helped build today’s Gwinnett County, starting in the prosperous postwar years.

Wages' wife, Sandra, is planning a big drop-in birthday party from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, September 19 at the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse on the square in Lawrenceville. His five children and six grandchildren, along with a crowd of extended family and friends, will be there to celebrate Wages' extraordinary life.

When excited, this 80-year-old man has a quick, light step that is hard to keep up with. Wages fairly skips around his Lawrenceville funeral home, eager to talk about his work and proud to show off his caskets. Richard Nixon and Jackie Onassis were laid to rest in the $14,000 Marcellus Mahogany. The Seamless Copper Deposit is fit for a king, housing the remains of Elvis Presley and both Presidents Roosevelt, according to Wages.

He rounds the corner and bounces into the pristine embalming room. High fluorescent lights show a mid-20th-century industrial-style tiled-floor space holding some of Wages’ original equipment. A tall, beautiful glass and enamel cabinet, dating from at least the 1940s, displays shelves full of neatly arranged tools, both new and antique. Specialized equipment make the embalming process tidy and efficient. The embalming room is an attractive area full of years of accumulated atmosphere. It is almost comfortable and inviting.

Later that Friday evening, the Corner Café in Lawrenceville is packed and a smiling Tom Wages holds court. He is easy to spot in his immaculate cream-colored suit, trademark bow tie and $20 gold piece on a chain, and he buzzes around like a hummingbird who knows everyone in the room. Even little children in highchairs wave their arms and call his name. Every child Wages encounters receives a coin purse stamped with the "Tom M. Wages Funeral Service" logo with one dollar inside.

"One night in Snellville I gave away $75 in coin purses in less than 30 minutes," Wages said. "Sometimes they line up."

Sandra, a blue-eyed blonde with a pretty smile, stands against the wall waiting for a table and watching her husband enjoying himself. Wages buried Sandra’s father in 1972.

"This is probably my favorite thing about being married to him, except for Tom, Jr., of course," she said. "When we go out, he knows everybody and I meet a lot of people."

Tom Wages is a happy man. Unlike others, he never had to find himself or search for his calling. He has been blessed with good health, longevity, and a good family and he has practiced the work he loves for 56 years. He sees his service as a gift to the family by giving them a last picture of their loved one and a dignified good-by that allows the family to begin a life forever changed.

"I love embalming, it’s quite an art," he said. "If someone has been sick and wasted away, you can restore them and give the family that memory of them before the illness. I like conducting the funeral, meeting the family, and having it all run real smooth. Everybody going one way, and nobody running over pews. Sometimes you will have a body in each room, and every funeral is different. You have to have a lot of psychology and patience. Sometimes people want to get to spending too much money,and I have to talk to them. Sometimes they get insulted and bless you out; then come back and apologize when it is all over."

When Wages buried Mary Ann Layne's mother in 1988, she was so satisfied with the proceedings that she called on Wages to bury her father, Charles, the next year.

"They were kind and helpful," said Layne, of Buford. "They took a personal interest in the services and made sure everything was pretty and displayed well. They took care of things I really couldn' t take care of myself, and everything was well organized."

Carole House, owner of Tapp Funeral Home in Buford, the oldest in the county, appreciates Wages' attention to good organization. Many times she has consulted with him to construct a successful ceremony.

"We work with Mr. Wages often, like when we need items we may not have or a family who wants a certain casket, we can call on Mr. Wages," said House. "There have been times when Mr. Wages had an internment in town, and he called on us to help with the cemetery."

What makes someone want to become a funeral director? Wages said he never wanted to do anything else.

 

"I had my own little cemetery at home, and I buried anything that died, a white billy goat, a collie dog that went with me to school everyday, chickens," said Wages. "Mother couldn’t have any flowers outside because I picked them for the graveyard or the billy goat ate them. We had a little pet dog, Friskie, that died, and I buried her. About three or four days later I dug her up to see how she looked, and it was bad. While I had her out, my sister snuck up and touched me on the shoulder, and I thought I was going to die."

Home was an 1,800-acre farm on New Hope Road in Dacula that employed 35 to 40 mules in a busy work time. Wages’ father recognized certain qualities in his son, the youngest of 11 children. He set his mind that Tom would become a doctor, a career in the same ballpark as funeral director, but at the opposite end of the spectrum. But Tom persevered, graduating from Dacula High School at age 16 and finding a mentor in F. Q. Sammons, one of Gwinnett’s leading funeral director, at the time with parlors in Lawrenceville, Norcross, and Winder. Wages attached himself to Sammons, fascinated with the master’s embalming process and the legion of meticulous details that make a funeral successful.

"I worked for him two or three months, and he said, ‘You know, you might as well go get your clothes and move in, you just about live here, anyway,’" Wages said. "I worked nine months and got drafted into the Navy."

When duty called, career had to wait. The service turned out to be a blessing when the G. I. Bill paid for him to attend Cleveland College of Mortuary Science in Cleveland, Ohio, class of 1946. He came home to his old job with Sammons, bringing a college degree and a bride.

"I think I fell for that Southern accent," said Mildred Wages, Tom’s first wife. "It was new up there [in Cleveland]."

 

When Sammons passed on, Wages opened his own business Jan. 8, 1949, at 120 Pike Street in Lawrenceville. Wages’ daddy, who had insisted Tom become a doctor, lived to see Tom’s first four years of success. When he died, Tom embalmed and buried him, later burying his mother and a nephew or two.

"I saved $7,000; my Daddy and brother each loaned me $7,000; and I borrowed $7,000," said Wages. "Back then, a hearse cost not hardly $6,000. Now they are about $90,000."

Daughter Valerie Wages, 55, remembers the first years in business as being fat times with plenty of food on the table.

"When people didn't have money, he took chickens or vegetables to pay for the funeral," she said. "He let the first Catholic church (in Gwinnett County) meet in his chapel in Lawrenceville and they gave him hams and meat to say ‘Thank you.’ Gwinnett was rural for a Catholic church to start. Daddy said, ‘Everyone needs to be served.’"

That was back when the telephone number to the funeral home had only three digits. Back then, before refrigeration was common, the funeral business was not for a man with a weak stomach. When someone died on a hot summer afternoon, Wages had to rush to get the body embalmed before the Georgia heat got to it. Embalming is a skill that relies on touch and for years Wages used his bare hands to prepare a body. His left index fingernail has been eaten away by formaldehyde. Even so, Valerie found her daddy’s work intriguing. A licensed funeral director and embalmer herself and past president of the Georgia Funeral Association, Valerie now trains funeral home workers all over the United States.

"When someone called in the middle of the night I used to get up with him and say, ‘Let me go, let me go,’" she said. " I was fascinated. I used to follow him around everywhere, and my little brother does the same thing."

Tom, Jr., 11, can explain every piece of equipment in the embalming room. At most viewing and funerals he is a small figure, with his mother’s blonde hair and his daddy’s bow tie, bringing a family member a drink of water, making sure the guest book has a fresh ink pen. He plans to attend mortuary school, just like his daddy and sister, and get a business degree from the University of Georgia.

"It doesn’t bother me; I grew up around it," said Tom, Jr. "I don’t have nightmares."

Wages’ long career took him through a wedge of Georgia history, allowing him the privilege of laying to rest Georgia's well-known and unknown.

"I helped with Sen. Richard B. Russell’s mother," said Wages. "We embalmed her in the middle of the living room with the FBI and everybody going around like it was a terminal station."

One afternoon in 1978, Wages was leaving the old Lawrenceville courthouse with a handful of death certificates when he saw a woman he knew running toward him.

"I thought she was cutting up with me," Wages said in his soft, soothing voice. "I heard, ‘Ping, ping, ping’ and I ran over. (Hustler magazine publisher) Larry Flynt and Gene Reeves (Flynt’s attorney) had been shot, and I told him, ‘Just lay right where you are at.’ I got his briefcase out of the car and put it under his head. He’d been shot in the stomach."

In 1962, Tom M. Wages Funeral Services outgrew its original building, which has since been torn down. He moved the business to Scenic Highway in Lawrenceville, then opened a second branch in Snellville in 1979.

"Everybody thought I would go broke in Snellville; there wasn’t nothing there," said Wages. "The first day, we had a call and it hasn’t stopped since."

 

Funerals have changed some in the last 56 years, but Gwinnett County has changed even more. Today, Wages Funeral Services conducts ceremonies for all religions, nationalities, and cultures that respect each one's complicated customs. Many people prefer to celebrate the life of the dearly departed by customizing the funeral. Some use a video show to spotlight the person at various stages of life, and others design a creative service. Mourners crowded Snellville's roads the day Mr. Wages buried Hugh Snell ("The last of the old Snells," said Wages). Snell rode to his gravesite in Wages’ 100-year-old horse-drawn carriage. Another time, a young Mason intended to be carried to the cemetery in his old pickup truck. Wages obliged.

"The next day, the Worshipful Master of the Masonic Lodge called to ask if the family needed financial help, since it appeared they couldn’t afford to use a hearse," said Valerie.

Having spent so many years with death has not changed Wages' Baptist views on eternal life.

"Oh, I know there's life after death," he said. "All you have to do is get up in the morning and look at a sunrise. Look at your children."

Each Halloween children and adults travel from all over to trick or treat at the Wages house, where the yard is decorated with a casket and other articles of the trade. One wonders if Wages ever had a paranormal experience.

"I’ve never seen a ghost; I’ve never seen nothing; and I’ve been embalming at 2 or 3 a.m.," said Wages. "I have seen things that’d scare you to death if you didn’t know what they were. Hands and fingers move; eyes wiggle. When they’re not dead long they go ‘oooh.’ It's just gas escaping."

Today, Wages leaves most of the embalming to his staff and son-in-law Rick Johnson, who has been with him since 1978. Unless it’s an old friend; then he likes to do the finishing touches himself. When he’s not at the funeral home, he may be at his Dacula farm, tending to his prized Limousine cattle. Like F. Q. Sammons, Wages serves as mentor to the next generation of funeral directors coming up.

"Mr. Wages has a lot of knowledge, and he is so detail-oriented," said Chris Banks, manager of the Snellville location. "Like the front pages in the funeral book. Mr. Wages fills them out for the family. Every other funeral home I've worked for, they don't fool with filling out the book. He makes sure all the pallbearers wear carnations, which is standard, but if the families don't think to buy them, he goes and gets them."

            Wages’ knowledge and Johnson’s hard work allow Valerie to devote her life to educating other funeral directors.

"He taught us when a family places their loved one in your care to use the utmost respect," she said. "Like in the embalming process, make sure they are covered and bathed properly. With the knowledge I gained from my father, I was able to take my talents to a different level and educate others. Daddy and Rick’s hard work on the home front makes it possible for me to be away from the business and do this."

Wages says he will embalm until the day he dies. On that day, the old master will be laid to rest in the Seamless Copper Deposit casket that takes more than a dozen men to carry. It sits now in a back storage room, covered in blankets. With a good cook by his side, a plug of tobacco in his pocket, and a satisfying life, Wages expects to be around for quite some time doing the work he loves.

"My dad has given a lot to the community," said Valerie. "It's a real honor for him to serve a family. That's quite a commitment to your fellow man. I am proud of him."

 

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