More than shovels and headstones: How Lincoln Township found its long-serving cemetarian

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Kevin Gebhard stands near a columbarium in Hickory Bluff Cemetery on Wednesday. Gebhard has been tending to Lincoln Townships cemeteries for 37 years. (Tony Wittkowski / HP staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Kevin Gebhard really digs his job.

Through the last 37 years, he’s become well accustomed to the Lincoln Charter Township Cemetery and Hickory Bluff Cemetery – which are a combined 25 acres – as the township’s cemetarian.

His responsibilities as public works director stretch beyond maintaining the two cemeteries, but the headstones keep him busy year round.

At 21 years old, Gebhard found himself between jobs when he was roped into digging his first grave.

“I was walking down St. Joe Avenue when a guy I knew from school, who was out working in the cemetery, called me over and asked ‘you wanna help me dig a grave?’” Gebhard recalled.

Work at both cemeteries can be cyclical, but Gebhard said he gets a lot of help during the summer when it comes to mowing and pulling weeds.

“By the time you’re done weeding the last row at one cemetery, it’s time to start to doing that at the other one because everything’s grown back by then,” he said with a laugh. “This is done all by hand since you can’t get around some of the headstones with a mower.”

In his early years, Gebhard said the township had a sexton whose only job was to dig graves. Going back three decades, the township only had two mowers and no maintenance building.

When it comes to digging graves, Gebhard guesses they average about 50 a year. At this rate over the course of his time with the township, Gebhard has dug nearly 2,000 graves.

But Gebhard said the township can go as long as two weeks without breaking ground before there’s a string of funerals that seem to come all at once.

Each grave is 3.5 feet wide and about 56 inches deep. The depth is equivalent to shoulder length for most people standing up.

“Digging someone’s grave six feet deep is a myth,” Gebhard said.

With one foot in

About five years ago, the township added granite columbarium units to its cemeteries at Gebhard’s request. A columbarium is a structure – either indoors or outside – that has niches for funeral urns to be stored.

They’ve grown in popularity since the township installed its first one, and Gebhard can see why.

“They pay for themselves. They are a good investment and it saves space in the cemetery,” he said. “Everybody is going that way. You get so many preferences out there when it comes to death. Some people do not want to go in the ground.”

In addition to the columbarium, Gebhard installed a “scatter garden” at Hickory Bluff Cemetery. The garden is an area for mourners to throw their loved one’s ashes into nature. Nearby the scatter garden is a wall with engraved names of those whose ashes have been spread in the native scenery.

For funeral proceedings, Gebhard said they usually stay back from the crowd. Watching people stand still in silence, saying goodbye to family and friends tends to be a difficult thing to watch.

Afterward, Gebhard and his crew breaks everything down and covers the casket.

Although some funeral homes prefer to handle some of these tasks.

“There are times when people like to stick around and watch the top go on,” Gebhard said. “Some like to throw a shovel-full of dirt (over the casket). Then they leave and we pull our cribbing boards out and fill it with dirt.”

Winter times can be tough because the ground is still frozen. However, Lincoln Township buries all year long.

Using a steel blade on an edger, crew members peel back the tough top layer of sod before digging farther down. Gebhard said he remembers how they used to dig graves by hand when he started – especially in the older part of the township’s first cemetery where it was hard to maneuver a tractor.

“I just like it when everything is green and growing well and there are no complaints,” he said. “Making everybody happy is hard to do, but it’s what drives you. I take a lot of pride in that.”

The hardest part of the job is digging graves meant for children.

“We’ve buried too many kids out here,” Gebhard said Wednesday while on site at Hickory Bluff. “It’s hard to see so many of your friends out here, too.”

On watch for thievery

Not everything that comes with Gebhard’s job is morbid.

One of the funnier memories he has at the cemetery came during the first year on the job. One day while walking through an old section of the cemetery, he fell through a grave.

“It was an old sectional vault and I went through the casket and was standing on the bottom (of the grave),” Gebhard said, shaking his head. “I was pretty new back then. My eyes were real big while I climbed out of there.”

Another memorable moment was when Gebhard was working at Hickory Bluff a few years back. There were several reports of stolen items from graves at various cemeteries in Southwest Michigan.

“I was down there working and I see this van coming around. A lady jumps out and grabs something really quick,” Gebhard said. “She went around the corner and did the same thing. This happened a few more times, so I went to the truck.”

Gebhard grabbed his radio from inside the maintenance truck and reached out to police.

By that point, she was gone and heading down Glenlord Road. Police cars went chasing after her but lost the van. About two minutes later, Gebhard’s old supervisor called him because he had been listening to all the commotion over the radio.

He radioed Gebhard and asked him to describe the van for him. As it turned out, the van was in front him on M-139.

“The cops followed her to her house,” Gebhard said. “Her whole yard was nothing but stolen cast-iron pots, flowers, decorations – the whole nine yards. That was fun prosecuting her.”

Ten years after the incident, Gebhard thought he saw the same thing happen when another woman got out of her vehicle and began grabbing a few shepherd hooks near graves that are used to support flowers.

Doing his due diligence, Gebhard called the police. The hooks turned out to belong to her family.

“I felt so low, but it looked exactly like the first time,” Gebhard said. “She was upset and we straightened it out. That was terrible. I learned a lesson there.”

A final headstone

Clerk Stacy Loar-Porter met Gebhard when she became clerk 16 years ago.

Oddly enough, Loar-Porter said her husband’s family has known Gebhard since they were kids where the two would go camping together. Born in Dowagiac, Gebhard’s family moved to the Stevensville area when he was in kindergarten.

“I think it’s amazing that he started here by mowing lawns and has worked his way up to where he is now,” Loar-Porter said. “We get lots of compliments from residents about him.”

He’s a member of the Michigan Association of Municipal Cemeteries and has been on its Board of Directors from time to time.

In 2015, he was named Cemetarian of the Year. The award is based on a person’s longevity in the field as well as their dedication to the craft.

Loar-Porter said other cemeteries in the state nominated him for his knowledge of the profession.

“Whenever they called him with questions about something, he would always know the answer,” Loar-Porter said. “He helps us with a lot of history. People who go to our cemeteries on a regular basis to check on their families know him by his first name.”

There’s a lot of love and history that comes with cemeteries, Loar-Porter said. And she believes Gebhard is the reason the township has some of the best cemeteries in Southwest Michigan.

“When Kevin decides to leave I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “I’ve told him not to even think about it. He’s a big asset to the township.”

As for when he eventually kicks the bucket, Gebhard already knows what he wants on his headstone.

“Mine will read, ‘I told you I was sick,’” he said without pausing. “I thought my wife would get a kick out of that.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 7, 2017)

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Combating the silent killer: Firefighters discuss carbon monoxide detectors, regulations

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Children swim Tuesday in the pool at the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA. Along the walls are various lights, cameras and carbon monoxide detectors. (Tony Wittkowski / HP staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

As children swam laps in the pool Tuesday in the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA, there is safety fixture fastened to the aquatic room’s northern wall.

Between a flat-screen television in the corner and a surveillance camera toward the middle of the wall, is a carbon monoxide detector.

With the recent carbon monoxide poisoning incident in mind, the Niles Fire Department is hoping residents and business owners will take an extra precaution in keeping everyone safe – like at both YMCAs in Berrien County.

The precaution, in most cases, costs $20.

Police and firefighters across Southwest Michigan universally agree on not only providing smoke detectors, but carbon monoxide detectors in homes and specific businesses.

“In the city of Niles, smoke detectors are required,” Niles Fire Department Capt. Don Wise said in a phone interview. “The code states a working detector must be in each bedroom and on each level (of the home). The same cannot be said for carbon monoxide detectors.”

On Saturday, a ventilation problem with the heater that keeps the Niles Quality Inn and Suites’ pool warm caused a carbon monoxide leak that sent a dozen people to the hospital and killed 13-year-old Bryan Watts.

In Niles, the fire department regularly inspects potential fire hazards, but not mechanical problems like what caused the pool’s heater to leak CO into the enclosed room.

The state building code requires structures that were built after 2009 to install carbon monoxide detectors near fuel-burning devices like furnaces, water heaters and other equipment that could malfunction and emit the deadly gas. Unfortunately, the building code doesn’t include structures built before 2009.

Spotting the signs

By definition, carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas.

This silent killer exhibits symptoms like that of the flu. Wise said sometimes the only way to know the difference is to have a CO detector on hand.

“I think anyone with fuel-burning equipment should have a CO detector,” Wise said. “A furnace’s heat exchanger could get a crack in it and dump CO into a home or business. Whenever we have a tragedy like this, the only thing worse is having it happen again when a $20 detector would prevent that.”

Watervliet Fire Chief Dan Jones said there’s a threshold that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has for certain businesses like car repair shops or underground parking garages.

The concentration of carbon monoxide is measured in parts per million. The baseline threshold for a minimum exposure is at 35 parts per million, Jones said.

Any more exposure leads to more severe effects. At 200 parts per million, the subject gets a slight headache and nausea after two hours.

After 800 parts per million, a convulsion will occur within 45 minutes, unconsciousness or death comes in two to three hours. At 1,600 parts per million, Jones said death will come within an hour.

“Obviously, you don’t want any CO whatsoever. The readings you want in your home or business is zero,” Jones said. “Just like with smoke detectors, we encourage people to use CO detectors. We encourage them because CO detectors are not required in the ordinance.”

Being prepared

Jen Hobson, director of administration for the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA, said after the renovation to its building on Hollywood Road, they added more than 30 smoke detectors that also detect carbon monoxide.

In addition to the one in the pool area, Hobson said there are also ones in the basement and near the child care facilities.

“We have them throughout the building,” she said. “They follow the same protocol at the Niles Y. We also hold by-yearly battery checks and have regular inspections for licensing protocol.”

But what happens when residents are unsure whether a business has a CO detector?

“We’ve had some people ask about going to hotels and knowing if they have a detector,” Wise said. “Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves. A battery-operated detector is the best option. You can plug it in when you get there.”

This is the practice Wise follows when he stays at any hotel or goes camping and uses propane.

“I have CO detectors in my home and at work. I know I have one in my house for natural gas as well,” Wise said. When asked if he sees as many of these CO detectors in public, the answer is not as simple. “I probably see more homes that don’t have them. We have a free smoke detector program for owner-occupied homes, but we don’t offer CO detectors. People have to buy them on their own.”

Jones said there are certain commercial buildings in Watervliet they inspect on an annual basis. This includes the Surfari Joe’s Indoor Wilderness Waterpark at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Watervliet.

He said hotels and motels are the type of commercial buildings that should have CO detectors because it is where people would sleep or spend the night.

However, his rule of thumb doesn’t apply to restaurants.

“It doesn’t take me three hours to eat,” he said. “Having a CO detector takes the guesswork out of it. It doesn’t take very many breaths of carbon monoxide and you will be debilitated.”

In most cases, CO doesn’t get into a high enough concentration for people not to recognize it, Jones said.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 5, 2017)

Microbrewery plans a two-phase expansion

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — North Pier Brewing Co. has grown fast since opening last year, enough so to merit an expansion at its Benton Township location.

The microbrewery at 670 North Shore Drive, adjacent to Hole 14 of the Golf Club at Harbor Shores and across the street from the North Shore Inn, was given approval by township trustees Tuesday for a 20,000-square-foot expansion that would be completed in two phases.

The expansion won’t be connected to the microbrewery’s current building, but create a separate facility across the street at the shared parking lot between North Shore Inn and North Pier.

Jay Fettig, owner of North Pier, said the expansion would be dedicated to cold storage, warehousing and bottling beer.

The first phase includes 7,500 square feet in cold storage and warehousing. The second phase will address the remaining 12,500 of the expansion for production, Fettig said.

The separate production building would be geared toward canning.

“We always had aspirations to expand. As things progressed and we figured out what was required, we quickly realized we needed to ramp up production now,” Fettig said. “We weren’t quite ready for a new brewhouse since we’re only a year old, but we needed some upgrades.”

The microbrewery at 670 North Shore Drive has a somewhat low barrel capacity, Fettig said. The expansion would alleviate the problem.

“We’ve been doing a small expansion in our current space and added new outdoor tanks that hold 45 barrels,” Fettig said. “What this will allow us to do is brew five times as much beer as we were doing. We will also get a canning line in April. With all that in mind and those upgrades going on in our current space, we needed space for everything else.”

Fettig told trustees Tuesday that they would like to begin work on the first phase as soon as possible.

The rest of the mitten

Part of what’s driving this expansion is North Pier’s effort to extend its beer to the rest of the state.

As a microbrewery, North Pier can sell beer in its own tavern or through retailers across Michigan.

Most of the beer made at the microbrewery is for distribution, which is limited to Berrien County and neighboring regions. After the expansion, Fettig said the microbrewery would end up producing enough to distribute to most of Michigan and northern Indiana.

“We would continue to sell about eight to 10 different beers locally,” he said. “Statewide, there would only be two flagship beers that would be distributed because of the amount of work it would take.”

The parking lot, which has 24 spaces, would be upgraded to reduce any traffic congestion along the three-way intersection. The production building Fettig hopes to see built would be directly behind the parking lot.

The land behind it has already been cleared for site preparation.

Fettig said the second phase would be done later on with no specific time frame in mind.

“Ideally, if things go well and we max out our current facility, the plan would be more space,” Fettig said. “A new brewhouse and larger fermenters would be nice. The additional 12,500 of the site plan is our way of planning ahead.”

The microbrewery has three full-time workers and seven part-time employees, but site documents provided to the township show the expansion is expected to eventually add five to 10 people.

North Pier Brewing Co. first opened last summer in time for the 2016 Senior PGA Tournament.

Fettig ended up reusing the building as well as its extension that was built in the 1950s. The building was renovated to accommodate seating and the tap room. The remaining structure, which dates to the mid-1920s, was the old Anderson Patterson Works.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 23, 2017)

Groceries meets politics: Scarbrough returns to public office to ‘make a difference’

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Linda Scarbrough stands by the entryway of her grocery and feed store in Millburg on Wednesday. Scarbrough is the newest member of the Benton Township Board of Trustees. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — In some way, shape or form, Linda Scarbrough has spent the last 30 years serving Benton Township residents.

She owns the Red & White Grocery & Feed Store in Millburg and represented the township as treasurer for four years.

With the election season in sight, it appeared the township’s Board of Trustees would have at least one new face among its panel. Scarbrough took the chance and made her return to the board in November.

Scarbrough sat down with Herald-Palladium staff writer Tony Wittkowski to talk about her store and what she hopes to see from the township in the next four years.

What made you want to run for the Board of Trustees?

I’ve been active with the township since the early 2000s in different capacities. Whether that be committees or boards. I’m interested in the growth of the township. I just want to be a part of what goes on and hope that I can make a difference.

You were a treasurer for four years. When was that?

It was in, I believe 2000. I was asked to do that. Paul Harvey, who was the supervisor at the time and Jack O’Brien, who was very active in the Democratic Party, came here to visit me as a small business owner. O’Brien was getting the supervisor acquainted with the area and there was a vacancy on the board of trustees.

They asked if I would be willing to fill the position. The next day Mr. O’Brien called me at home and asked for me to run for treasurer. I told him I would do my very best.

I know you were on the Planning Commission. What were some of the other committees?

I was on the Planning Commission. I was on the Property Committee when I was treasurer and I have been on the Board of Review, as well.

OK, how long have you been involved with the township, in any capacity?

Probably 30 years. The first time I participated was when I was working at the store and Jim Boothby called during the election and said, “I am short a person at one of the polling places. Can you fill in?” I was there within an hour and have been doing something ever since.

Have you lived here all your life?

No, I moved here in 1963 from Missouri.

What brought you to the area?

Jobs. We were farmers in Missouri, which is very seasonal. In the ’60s, Southwest Michigan was a booming place. It was a place to go and get a job. We moved during the Thanksgiving holiday and the following Monday, my husband applied to work at Modern Plastics and went to work that Tuesday. We came because we needed work.

How did you end up opening the Red & White Grocery Store?

That started out as a joke. During the gasoline crunch in late ’70s or early ’80s, Avian closed after being here in the area for so, so long. We had a small farm out here, 10 acres, it was a hobby farm. We had some livestock and bought our feed at this store.

We had heard this place was for sale. The guys that were here, had been here for 44 years. One of them built the mill that we still operate. My husband joked “we could buy you a job.” The more we talked about it, the more interested we became. We made them an offer and here we are 35 years later.

Where do you see the township going in the next few years? You’re on the board now and have a front row seat on what comes through the township.

I can only hope I see it going up. I would hope that we can have some magnet stores. The new strip mall that’s coming in over by the Secretary of State(’s office). When they get one vendor in there, it will hopefully be a magnet for another store. We as a township need to be the shining star that people want to come be a part of.

Benton Township has one of the larger footprints in the county. Being on the Property Committee helped me understand that as well as the business districts and where they overlap. I go out to the site and do my homework. I want to see what we’ll be talking about and what controversy we might face.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 20, 2017)

Beshires gets life in prison, no parole

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Brandon Beshires, right, is pictured with attorney Donald Sappanos during a sentencing hearing Monday at the Berrien County Courthouse. Beshires was sentenced to life in prison without parole. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Brandon Beshires was sentenced Monday to life in prison without parole for the 2016 death of a baby in Coloma.

Beshires, 31, was in court after having already pleaded guilty to first-degree premeditated murder on Dec. 12. His decision to forgo a trial for the death of 8-month-old Carter Donovan, who died of severe head injuries, was met with surprise at the time.

Beshires received the mandatory penalty for first-degree murder in Michigan.

Berrien County Trial Court Judge Arthur Cotter told Beshires that upon looking at Carter’s autopsy photo, he had never seen a child’s skull so fractured in his 30 years working in the criminal justice system.

“I hope when you are in prison, and lying in your cell and you close your eyes, that image of that photograph will haunt you,” Cotter told Beshires. “It should haunt you because you’re responsible for it. Today, there will be justice in this courtroom.”

Cotter also said the photo would haunt him as well, though for different reasons.

“When I look at your record, you had lots of resisting arrests, obstruction (of justice) … five domestic violences and a prior child abuse (charge) in the fourth degree,” Cotter said. “I am haunted by that picture, because I don’t understand how our system couldn’t protect that child from you.”

Carter Donovan died on Feb. 19 last year after he was left in Beshires’ care while his mother, Autumn Atchley, went to a doctor’s appointment. Beshires was Atchley’s boyfriend at the time.

Beshires, a Benton Harbor resident, told the court on Dec. 12 that he brought Carter to the Hot Spot restaurant in Coloma while he got something to eat.

In the process of trying to change the child’s diaper, Beshires said he slammed the boy on the floor because he was angry the baby wouldn’t stop crying.

Atchley and Beshires had taken Carter to Lakeland Medical Center in St. Joseph after Atchley was finished with her doctor’s appointment on Feb. 19. The baby was pronounced dead at Lakeland.

An autopsy showed he died of severe head injuries.

When asked if he wanted to say anything before he was sentenced, Beshires spoke of regret.

“I’m just really sorry. I’ve been thinking about this every day for a year and I’m sorry. I hope everyone can have peace,” he said.

Michelle Raday, Carter’s aunt, read a prepared statement for Cotter to consider before he handed down his sentence. Raday spoke about the last time she held Carter and what his death has done to her family.

“My son, at 15 years old, has nightmares because of you,” Raday said in the direction of Beshires. “He has no idea how to heal from the hole you have created in our lives. Just like the rest of us, he has been ripped open and is struggling to understand how such a coward can even exist in the world.”

Sean Donovan, Carter’s father, spoke last and directly to Beshires, when Donovan stood in front of the courtroom.

“You did me wrong. You did my family wrong. You did my son wrong,” he said. “You’re going to pay for that, and you know that. Carter was a good boy.”

Beshires’ lawyer, Donald Sappanos, said his client’s decision to enter a guilty plea was meant to end the suffering to Carter’s family.

“He did what he thought was right at that time, and that was to stop all the proceedings,” Sappanos said. “He didn’t want to put his family or the victim’s family through any more grief.”

The baby’s mother, Autumn Atchley, has pleaded no contest to a charge of being an accessory after the fact, a five-year felony. She had also been scheduled for sentencing by Cotter on Monday.

However, Atchley’s case was adjourned because she has a new attorney. A courthouse official confirmed she is due in court on Feb. 6.

Atchley was charged with being an accessory after the fact because police say she initially lied to police about who the baby had been with earlier.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 31, 2017)

No one injured in Chicken Coop fire

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St. Joseph Township firefighters put out a fire at the Chicken Coop restaurant along Washington Avenue on Tuesday night. No one was injured from the fire. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — It took firefighters about 20 minutes to put out a fire that started at the Chicken Coop restaurant in St. Joseph Township.

Several fire trucks and police cars blocked traffic near the restaurant Tuesday night at 2062 Washington Ave. as smoke continued to billow after firefighters had hosed down the business.

St. Joseph Township Fire Chief Gary Maynard said it appears the fire started after a vent blower short circuited. However, authorities won’t know for sure until later in the week.

“The owner of the business indicated to us that he could smell something burning and his exhaust fans quit,” Maynard said. “At that time, he shut all of his fry vats down, but he could still smell something burning.”

The lone employee working in the building left uninjured.

Maynard could not estimate how much damage the building took, but said it was mostly just smoke damage.

“It’s not that bad, but there won’t be any chicken made for a while,” Maynard said.

Firefighters got the call around 6:30 p.m. when they were already out on another call for a structure fire.

Maynard said they used a saw in the attic of the restaurant to cut a hole in the ceiling to make sure there wasn’t any fire remaining. St. Joseph Township police and Medic 1 were also on scene for assistance.

Various people from Burger King and Chilli’s across the street made their way out to watch as firefighters put out the fire at the Chicken Coop.

Standing outside next door to the neighboring building was Dan Sandmann, an employee of Sandmann Barber Shop.

The Sandmann family owns a few of the buildings along Washington Avenue that house businesses, including the Chicken Coop.

Sandmann said his family leases the building to the owner of the Chicken Coop and was curious about what was taking place next to his workplace.

“A buddy of mine works across the street at Chili’s as a manager,” Sandmann said. “He was the one who texted me and told me the Chicken Coop was on fire. I walked out and saw this.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 11, 2017)

A reprieve from grief: Therapy dog joins Brown Funeral Home in Niles

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Brown Funeral Home director Tim Brown plays with Sir Winston Bailey Brown, the home’s therapy dog, on Monday in Niles. Sir Winston can regularly be seen beside Brown. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

NILES — Brown Funeral Home’s newest employee is furrier than most.

That’s because the Niles funeral home has a 4-month-old English retriever to help families cope with the loss of a loved one.

Known to many as Sir Winston Bailey Brown, the 50-pound pup is half grown and can regularly be seen walking side by side funeral home director Tim Brown.

Since joining Brown at the funeral home in late October, Sir Winston has met with at least three dozen families in their time of need during arrangement conferences, visitations and funerals.

In one of Sir Winston’s first visits, Brown recalled a child sitting on some steps inside the funeral home. Brown knew the grief-relieving dog would fit in well after Sir Winston came downstairs, sat next to the lone kid and gave him a lick on the face.

“The kid just grinned from ear to ear. Really, I think it made his day here at the funeral home much easier,” Brown said. “For a lot of kids, it’s an uncertain experience to be in a place like this. This is true even for adults. It’s not the most comfortable place to come. There’s something about having the dog around that makes it easier.”

Sir Winston can generally sense things well. During visitations, Sir Winston knows it’s time to work. This is especially true when Brown puts the blue and white bow tie around the dog’s neck.

Sir Winston is available at no additional cost to offer comfort to families and those who attend services at the funeral home. Therapy dogs have been used extensively in hospitals and nursing homes. Brown said several families took note of how therapy dogs helped their loved ones along the journey, which encouraged him to find one of his own.

Brown contacted a well-known breeder out of Fenton, whose dogs are generally bred for show. However, Brown was able to convince her to give them one for therapy.

Choosing a name for the helpful pup ended up going public, when Brown opened it up to the community. A committee, put together by Brown, took more than 400 responses and suggestions.

The dog’s first name would be inspired by the late British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill.

Sir Winston Bailey Brown gets his middle name from Bailey Bennett, who died of cancer this year at the young age of 10. Given Bailey Bennett’s reputation in the community during his battle with cancer, the boy’s mother and others suggested Bailey as a name for Brown’s dog.

“His mother had suggested using his name,” Brown said. “The comfort dogs were a huge help for him while he was fighting cancer. It just felt like an honor to have his name and let his legacy live on.”

Sir Winston has been alongside Brown every hour of the day since he got him in October.

He sleeps next to Brown’s bed, comes to work with him everyday. He travels to and from home, with a kennel beside Brown’s office.

Brown said Sir Winston has acclimated quite well to his position after the first two months.

“Most times during visitations and funerals, he does come down and spends time with families,” Brown said. “He’s been a big hit. We thought the kids would love him, but we think the older crowd loves him just as much.”

Sensing emotions

The Niles funeral home is not the first one to introduce a therapy dog to its clients.

Duffield & Pastrick Family Funeral Home in Coloma still has its own therapy dog named Seger. The chocolate lab that presides in Coloma is now 8 years old.

Brown had been considering adding a therapy dog to its services for about a year before doing so. One of the local gentleman who helped Brown find the right dog was a man who runs the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame.

It was there that he introduced a dog to the Basilica. That dog would go on to become a sort of unofficial mascot for Notre Dame for many years, Brown said.

Going through puppy training now, Brown said Sir Winston’s therapy training hasn’t officially started yet. In addition to learning all things puppies need to know in their first few months, Sir Winston is being conditioned to people and how they react when in grief.

The rest of his training will help him sense emotions and how to respond to specific ones. For example, Brown said if a kid pokes him in the eye, he’ll learn how to respond to that in a positive way.

What’s surprised Brown the most since introducing Sir Winston to the community is how popular he’s become.

In addition to the nonstop visits from those familiar with the puppy, the funeral home has received an overwhelming amount of toys.

Initially, Brown and Sir Winston were getting so many toys and gifts that they donated a large portion of those to Pet Refuge in South Bend.

“The acknowledgement and support Sir Winston has gotten has been a welcome surprise,” Brown said. “I’m also surprised by the families’ response to him. We work very hard to make sure this is a very smooth and easy part of a journey for a family. We spend countless hours getting their loved ones ready and making videos. But what comes back in our ‘thank you’ notes are how fantastic it was that Winston was around.”

Once his training is finalized, Brown said they are hoping to use Sir Winston in the capacity of a service dog for shut-ins, hospitals and any place where he could be useful.

That includes being on scene to offer comfort if there is a large traumatic experience involving a mass fatality.

Until then, Sir Winston will continue to be a comfort to the funeral home’s guests and staff.

“He’s been as much a blessing to our staff as well as families,” Brown said. “Sometimes we forget that we carry a lot with us It’s not just another day at the office for us. There are a lot of emotions tied to this job. He’s acted as a relief valve to us.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 3, 2017)