BY WILLIAM T. SIMMS JR.
MESSENGER NEWSPAPER STAFF WRITER
JULY 7, 2005
The name will stay the same, but ownership of one of Hopkins County's oldest funeral homes has changed. Three brothers --- Virgle, James, and Peter Bowles --- are the new owners and operators of Elliott Mortuary Services in Madisonville. They grew up working for the funeral home that now belongs to them. "We weren't related to Willie Mae (Elliott)," said Virgle, who handles the day-to-day operations. "But the two families have always been close, back to my grandmother's days." Elliott opened the funeral home in 1941 as Elliott Funeral Home and Ambulance Service, one of the five black-owned funeral parlors in Hopkins County at the time. Elliott was the first female, white or black, to get a mortician's license in the state of Kentucky, according to James.
The brothers have been operating the business since February 24, 2004, under the name Elliott Mortuary.
"Willie Mae was a professional and well-respected," said Virgle. "She was a perfectionist throughout, down to the last detail. Everything had to be just right. People appreciate that, especially, in a time of mourning and loss.
"We will do everything we can to continue her legacy of treating all people with dignity and respect, meeting our clients' needs and being caring citizens in the community," he said.
The brothers literally knew Elliott from birth. She took each of them home from the hospital when they were born because the family didn't have transportation.
The brothers find it a little surprising they now own the funeral home they were afraid to go anywhere near as youngsters.
"I used to cross to the other side of the street just so I wouldn't have to go near it," said Virgle. "James would sometimes cut the grass near the building so fast that it zigged and zagged."
But they say Elliott knew all along ---- she even told them she would make undertakers out of them.
Their apprenticeship started early. At 4 or 5 years of age, they were doing odd jobs around the funeral home, like picking up trash. In elementary school, they mowed grass, cleaned cars and mowed the cemetery. Much to Virgle, they still do the mowing. When asked if they were paid, James said, "We just worked to be working. It wasn't for the money, it was for the business."
In high school, they began working at the funeral home's front door, greeting people, handing out programs and helping guests to their seats. Eventually, they started going on non-emergency ambulance runs, picking up patients from the hospital or taking clients to doctor's appointments or nursing homes.
"It was educational to get back there with the patients and talk to them and make sure they got to their destination comfortably," James said. "It made us understand what people sometimes go through when they're hurting or in mourning."
A big part of the job was to be ready at a moment's notice, they said.
"She'd (Elliott) given us pagers, and we'd be eating our dinner," Virgle said. "The pager would go off, and we'd be like, "aww man." "Boys this is Willie Mae. I have a death call."
On occasions the boys even wore tuxedos to greet the customers.
"Peter and I would be on each side of the casket," James said, "and one time this guy came up and saluted us. He thought we were with the honor guard or something, and he asked me, "Aren't you kinda young?"
The brothers also want what they've accomplished so far in their lives to inspire others. Peter and James are 41, Virgle is 39. They said they want to be role models and give back to the community that has given them so much.
"All the clergy have been wonderful to us and welcomed us," Virgle said. "This is a very sensitive business. You have to be aware of people's needs and try to make it as easy as possible for them.
"We want to continue her legacy, her amazing sense of duty to people," he said. "She was without a doubt an inspiration to all who knew her, black or white."
Each brother has a business degree from the University of Louisville. James holds a mortuary science degree from Mid-America College of Funeral Services in Jeffersonville, Ind., and an associate degree of mortuary science. Virgle handles the day-to-day operations, meets and talks with clients, takes phone calls and manages the finances for the business.