Rick Henry of Conway has a deep, soothing voice that exudes empathy, and he’s had more than one person in his life comment on the sound of it.
“It’s not trained; it’s not staged — it’s me,” he said.
His voice matches his caretaker personality, which led him to become a nurse in the 1970s — just before he started his longtime career as a funeral director.
The 61-year-old Henry, preplanning consultant for Roller-McNutt Funeral Home in Greenbrier, has worked at funeral homes in four states during his 38-year career.
It was his grandmother’s funeral that started it all.
Henry, the oldest of five children, grew up in Mount Vernon and worked on his family’s farm. His father, Jesse, who died five years ago, oversaw road crews for the state of Arkansas, and Henry’s mother, Rheba, was a lunchroom cook at Mount Vernon High School and later at Mount Vernon-Enola High School after the two districts merged. The Henrys raised cattle, an operation his mother still oversees, and grew soybeans, cotton and hay.
In 1967, when his maternal grandmother died, Henry was 13, and it was the first funeral he’d attended. Bob Jones, who managed McNutt Funeral Home, as it was known at the time, was a distant cousin to Henry’s father.
“When we came to the funeral home, she just looked so beautiful,” Henry said of his grandmother. “It piqued my curiosity.”
Hazel McNutt, the owner at the time, greeted his family warmly, Henry said, and he met Lewis Winter, the funeral director.
“I always admired Lewis because he was a gentleman — kind and courteous. Mother always spoke highly of him.”
Henry later went to see Jones to ask him about becoming a funeral-home director, but the meeting didn’t go like Henry expected.
“He discouraged me. He said it’s long hours; you have to be dedicated; it takes a special person,” Henry said. Although Jones called Henry “a fine young gentleman,” he told Henry’s parents they should encourage him to find another career.
He decided to go into nursing instead.
“I’ve always been caring and wanted to take care of people; I’m a good listener. To be a nurse, you have to be a good listener and be caring,” he said.
From 1973-75, right after high school graduation, Henry worked in the emergency room of Conway Memorial Hospital, now Conway Regional Medical Center. The emergency room was only two rooms then, and Henry was the person who signed patients in, took their vital signs and reported them to a nurse. She — always a she — would tell Henry what doctor to call, and the physician would come in.
When someone died, someone from a funeral home came to the hospital, and Henry had interactions with the funeral home employees.
He went to Baptist System School of Nursing in 1975 — the only male in a large class. At first, he wasn’t allowed to get experience in labor and delivery/gynecology, because “they thought from a patient aspect that a male nurse might not be appropriate. That’s the way they put it,” he said.
Henry argued that he needed the experience and training for the state exam, and a committee agreed with him.
“I was blessed to deliver two babies when the doctor was asleep,” Henry said.
One particular doctor was a sound sleeper, and Henry tried unsuccessfully to wake him one night when a woman went into labor. Henry and a student nurse delivered the baby; then the doctor roused and took over.
It happened again on the same shift. “The doctor said, ‘Oh, no, not you again,’ and I said, in return, ‘Oh, no, not you again; I can’t ever wake you up,’” Henry said, laughing.
Henry describes himself as detailed-oriented.
“I had to be the best, … being they were against me in the beginning,” he said.
When he graduated in 1976, he was asked to stay at Baptist Hospital (now Baptist Medical Center) as an OB-GYN nurse. “I consider that an honor,” he said.
Instead, he became a coronary-care nurse at the hospital because he loved the one-on-one relationships. “You have to really be a detail person, follow through and follow the doctor’s orders. A patient can go from good to bad very quickly.”
After working at Baptist, Henry came to Conway Memorial.
One patient not only saw Henry as a good nurse, but possibly an angel.
He said the patient was going to be discharged soon, and Henry went by to congratulate the man.
“He said, ‘You have a beautiful halo around your head.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ He said, ‘You have a beautiful halo around your head.’”
Although he may have been on medication, Henry said, the man was alert and responsive. He also told Henry, “I won’t get to go home.” Henry reassured the man and told him that, according to the doctor, he was doing great.
“He said, ‘I just want to tell you you’ve been a wonderful nurse, and I thank you,” Henry said. Within two hours, the patient died.
In “the old days,” Henry said, nurses held their patients’ hands during their last hours, and he was that person many times.
“They’d talk to their mother; they’d talk to their father and call them by name. I do believe they see their family before they go.”
Another time, Henry did CPR to revive a heart-attack victim, the husband of one of his former high school teachers.
“I always thought that was a special blessing, since I knew him.”
Although Henry loved his patients, he kept thinking of the career he’d always wanted.
“That was my calling, but in the back of my mind, I still wanted to be a funeral director,” he said.
He decided to do an apprenticeship before committing to the profession. He got a chance at Drummond Funeral Home (now Roller-Drummond) in Little Rock in 1978, learning the skills he needed. In 1979, he attended mortuary college in Dallas.
He has been a funeral-home manager and director in Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and South Carolina.
“It’s the worst time of your life, but if I can take you by the hand and lead you through the process and make it as easy as I can, then I’ve done my job well,” he said.
Although it is a subject that some people find morbid, Henry said death is part of life. He has seen a lot of it throughout his career as a nurse and funeral director, but he’s
Death especially affects him when it’s a child.
“I have shed tears when I’ve taken care of a young person,” he said.
“I’ve been blessed that I’ve taken care of my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my brother and my father,” he said. “God gave me the strength and courage to do one more thing I could for them.
“I’ve had tragedies in my life. I had a 31-year-old brother killed in a car accident.”
Henry took care of preparing his brother for the funeral.
“It’s funny how God’s grace will give you the comfort and grace to do this,” Henry said.
He dressed his brother in a western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, his brother’s favorite outfit. His parents didn’t want his brother’s boots to be cut, so Henry was determined to follow their wishes. He got one boot on easily, but the other boot wasn’t cooperating.
The table was rolling around in the preparation room as Henry struggled and pushed. He stopped and asked God for help, and it occurred to him to put the table in the corner. The boot went right on.
“I needed that comedy, that release,” he said.
Henry prides himself in getting the details right. At the funeral home in St. Louis where he worked for 12 years, he said, he was chosen as the funeral director for the 92-year-old funeral-home owner, who had Alzheimer’s disease. Most people didn’t know she kept a lace handkerchief tucked under her watchband under the sleeve of her suit, and she’d hold it in her hand when people weren’t around. He tucked a handkerchief into her hands, fussed over all the flowers and made sure everything was perfect.
Her daughter and son-in-law, who were then vice presidents of the company, said, “We want to thank you for giving her dignity back to her.”
Those are the words that stay with him, Henry said.
Also in St. Louis, he was one of the funeral directors for the father of one-time host of Dateline NBC and 20/20 Stone Phillips, who Henry said was a gracious man.
Henry worked for a South Carolina funeral home when the custom was for bodies to be at home for visitation. Henry said the directors would take families a coffee urn, coffee, a pair of torchiere lamps, chairs, a registry book and stand, and a backdrop for behind the casket. “Sometimes when the casket would not go through the door, we would have to put it through the window,” he said.
One day when he was loading a funeral-home limousine, grandchildren of the deceased were looking curiously into the car.
He asked their parents if it was OK, and he let them pile into the limo and took them through the drive-thru at Dairy Queen for ice cream.
As those children grew up, they always mentioned to him how they remembered that trip to Dairy Queen in the funeral-home limo.
“You can take something sad and make it meaningful, and it helped them with death, too,” he said.
Henry was a director at the funerals of two former Arkansas governors — Sid McMath and Frank White — both in 2003. He drove the family car with the men’s widows
“That was a blessing,” Henry said, using his favorite phrase.
Henry moved from St. Louis to Conway in January to be closer to his mother. In February, he began working at Roller-McNutt Funeral Home in Greenbrier, but he sometimes meets with families in the Conway location.
Winter, 86, still works at Roller-McNutt Funeral Home in Conway and never misses the Monday meeting, Henry said.
“I look up to Mr. Winter,” Henry said.
The feeling is mutual.
“He’s a real friendly guy; he knows a lot of people,” Winter said. “Everybody likes his attitude. He’s just a top-rate guy you like to be around. I can’t say anything but good about him.”
Henry works with families to do their funeral preplanning.
“It’s a different era for me,” he said.
“When their death does occur, their family doesn’t have to do it. I’m still advising them; I’m still giving them all the options, … but it’s a happy time, not a sad time,” he said. Often it’s aging parents who want to take care of all their arrangements so their children don’t have to. “You get to choose the casket, clothing, the flowers, the monument. It’s all there in the file,” he said.
Henry has his arrangements all made, too — he did it 20 years ago.
“I always say, I want tons of flowers; I want three sad songs; I want tears at my funeral ,” he said, laughing. “And a horse-drawn hearse at the cemetery.”
And his burial suit? “You’re looking at it,” he said, smiling and grabbing his suit lapels with both hands.
It’s a combination of dark blue and black with a subtle pattern in the fabric. On this particular day, he has on a starched white dress shirt and a patterned burgundy tie with a gold tie clip.
However, for his actual funeral, he plans to wear his favorite purple tie.
It’s been said that the dash between a person’s date of birth and death — what he did in his life — is what’s important.
In Henry’s mind, what matters is that he spent his life caring for others.
“I hope that I’m remembered, when the pastor does my eulogy, as a caring person who loved people, because my whole career, it’s what I’ve done.”
But he’s not ready to stop.
“I hope God will foresee that I can do it 50 years,” he said.
Keith, Tammy. "Man makes career of tending from other." Rivervalley and Ozark. Web. July 31,2016. <http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2016/jul/31/man-makes-career-tending-others/?f=rivervalley>.