By Thomas A. Parmalee
When Barry Lease, 59, graduated from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in 1985, he never dreamed that he would one day lead the Pennsylvania institution as president and CEO.
But as he announced in a video, that’s exactly what he’s achieved, taking over from one of his primary mentors, Eugene “Gene” Ogrodnik, who recently retired as the head of the school. Lease took over April 2.
The transition, however, would have never happened if Ogrodnik had not “dressed down” Lease years ago in an incident that propelled the institution’s new chief to go back to school and earn a Bachelor of Science degree from Waynesburg College in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. He went on to earn an MBA from Point Park University in Pittsburgh and a Doctor of Education degree from Walden University.
“I was still at a small funeral home and working at the institute as a clinical embalmer,” Lease said. “I came to a clinical embalmer meeting here at the school, and being a young brash funeral director, I knew I had good skills.”
With a degree of overconfidence and swagger, he asked Ogrodnik, “When do you want me to teach embalming?”
Ogrodnik looked him square in the eye and said, “You don’t mean anything to us right now. You need to get your bachelor’s degree to be something. When you get that, you come to talk to me. But in the meantime, stay over as a technician, because that is what you are,” according to Lease.
While that may sound harsh to some, those words were the impetus that drove Lease to go back to school. “Thirty years later, I thank him for that,” he said. “I was telling everyone I could teach, but I didn’t even have the minimal requirement to do that.” He added, “He dressed me down to make me better.”
As Lease continued in his academic and professional career, he kept in touch with Ogrodnik. “I’d rib him a little and say, ‘Hey, I got my bachelor’s degree.’ And when I got a fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, I told him about it. So, we were in touch.”
Then one day, Lease got a message from Ogrodnik. All he said was “Let’s talk.”
When Lease got back to Ogrodnik, he asked “About what?” – and Ogrodnik said, “Come meet for dinner – I have an idea for you.”
Ogrodnik told Lease that someone at the institute was retiring. If Lease wanted the position, it was his.
Lease was beside himself: He was newly married and had finally gotten a job where he was making some money. Going to PIMS would mean taking a pay cut.
But Ogrodnik knew he had Lease – funeral service ran in the young man’s blood as sure as it did in his.
“Gene said, ‘You’ll work it out.’ And I did – and I have no regrets,” Lease said.
The Path to PIMS
After graduating from PIMS, Lease earned his license in 1987.
He got his start working for Beinhauer Family Funeral Homes, a high-volume firm based in Pittsburgh, where he started washing cars in high school. While at PIMS, he did his internship there, and just like at PIMS, he worked his way up.
“I am really thankful I did my training there – they really gave me a lot of experience,” Lease said. “I saw things I could have never experienced at a smaller operation, and I worked for them about 10 or 11 years.”
He counts himself lucky to have somehow landed a job at Pittsburgh’s highest-volume firm in his early 20s. “It was the good old days, when it was an 8% cremation rate, and we had people laid out for two days,” he said. “I just loved funeral service and being in a big, busy place where there was constant activity. I didn’t understand how a small funeral home worked until I got to one, where you could go three weeks without serving a family.”
After his long stint at Beinhauer, he took a job at a smaller firm – one that his family had used and that he hoped to acquire one day. He stayed there about eight years.
“Things were working out that way until both the owners died,” he said. “And the children who ran it just had a better opportunity selling it out.”
Not only did they sell the firm to someone else, but they also told him he no longer had a job after several years of devoted service.
After all these years, Lease chalks it up to business … but talking to him, you can tell it left him crushed.
“I was really happy being a funeral director and was for a very long time – it wasn’t until I was displaced that I even thought about not being one,” he said. “That ending didn’t end as well as I would have liked it to. I was disappointed, and I was mad. ‘What do you mean you’re selling the place and I’m out of here?’”
But everything fell into place as a result of that experience, in more ways than he could have ever imagined at the time.
“Ironically, I met my wife, Donna, at that funeral home,” he said. “I was working a funeral for her uncle – and to this day, I am thankful for that.”
That meeting, he said, was a matter of “divine intervention.”
“It was September 1995, and I made arrangements with Donna’s family for her Uncle Harry’s funeral,” he said.
After college at the University of Pittsburgh, Donna moved to New York City and became a successful footwear rep for various companies. “On the way down to the first viewing, Donna’s sister said, ‘I wish you would meet a nice young man so you could move back to Pittsburgh,’” Lease shared.
“Lo and behold, we met at the first viewing and chatted for two days (those were the good old days of funeral service),” he said. “I found out that we both shared a love of ice hockey and cheering on the Pittsburgh Penguins. I told Donna that I had season tickets close to the ice. One thing led to another and when I found out Donna was in the shoe business, I was looking for this particular pair of Nike hikers, which were really expensive. I told her on the second day of viewing, ‘If you find these for me at a discount, I’ll take you to a Penguin game.’”
After the funeral and going back to New York City, she called Lease having gotten the hikers for 50% off. She had come to “cash in” on her bet.
The two went to the Penguins game and were married in 1997.
A Big Transition
Although he had parted ways with the funeral home that he had hoped to buy one day, Lease still had a connection to funeral service – although he was at a crossroads and unsure what to do next.
“At that point, I had started to work at PIMS as a clinical embalmer,” he said. “I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, so I couldn’t do anything else at the school.”
It was around that time that he got his “dressing down” from Orgodnik, which propelled him to go back to school and earn his bachelor’s degree and eventually his master’s degree.
“I caught on with a guy named Joe Mancuso … and to this day, I can’t thank him enough,” Lease said.
Mancuso, a PIMS graduate and longtime funeral director and trade embalmer, has probably done as many autopsies as anyone, Lease said. He called Lease “out of the blue” and taught him about the autopsy world. He played a critical role in landing Lease a pathology assistant fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where he worked for a renowned forensic pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht. All during this time, however, Lease continued doing clinical embalming at PIMS on the weekends.
“I met Joe when I was in mortuary school,” Lease said. “He worked at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office as an autopsy tech. Being a funeral director as well, he also did trade embalming on the side. Also, when I went to school, we did some of our embalming at the coroner’s office, so Joe was one of our instructors.”
Working as a pathology assistant for four years opened doors that were previously closed.
“Dr. Wecht is a perfectionist,” Lease said, noting that at age 93, he’s not only still alive, but he also runs his own practice. “He’s just a force,” he said.
While Lease rubbed elbows with Wecht, he reported to Mancuso. “But I was around Dr. Wecht, and he’s the best forensic pathologist in the world for a reason – he misses nothing,” Lease said. “He is someone who makes you better.”
Mancuso is in the same category: He reached out to Lease when he found himself out of a job at the funeral home he wanted to buy. “He said, ‘Barry, you are too valuable to be out of funeral service.’ He told me he could teach me some things about autopsies, and he could use the help. He gave me skills, insights, knowledge and techniques I never thought I had in me.”
Mancuso’s call also came at a critical time, as Lease had started to wonder if funeral service was going to go his way or not. “The whole thing could have been different … I could be working at a bank right now,” he said.
Climbing Up the Ranks
Today, Lease looks at that exchange with Ogrodnik – the time he was “dressed down” – as a turning point in his life.
“It was one of those moments when my life changed because someone cared enough to tell me I could do better,” he said. “And that is what I see as my role here – not to tell you what you are doing wrong, but to inspire you to do better.”
When Ogrodnik reached out to him when he as at UPMC, he was still doing clinical embalming at PIMS not so much for the extra money but because he loved it – and he wanted to give back and share some of the neat things he was learning in pathology with the funeral directors of tomorrow.
Ultimately, Lease went where his heart told him to go: He joined PIMS as a full-time faculty member.
“I chose funeral service,” he said. “Pathology and autopsy were just something I kind of fell into, but my heart was in funeral service. I have a wonderful wife, and she said, ‘You have to follow your heart – not your wallet.’”
When Ogrodnik was gearing up to retire and it was time to pick a successor, Lease taking on the role was a foregone conclusion.
“Gene had actually initiated a succession plan many years ago – he had the foresight to start to build someone into that role,” Lease said.
Around 2018, it became clear that he was being groomed for the position, Lease said, noting that as a precursor, he was named program director at the school.
“I oversaw the academics, accreditation and curriculum part of the business, which was a big responsibility,” he said. “I started working closely with Gene, and at that point, one thing led to another. I started assuming more of a business role, and it got to the point where it was sort of his decision. He said, ‘Barry is ready’ – and he expressed that to the chairman of our board, James O. Pinkerton.”
Although Ogrodnik has retired, he still serves on the PIMS board and stays in regular contact with Lease. “If I have a problem, he helps – he is there for us,” Lease said. “He is a PIMS guy, and that is what you do. I hope when it is my time, I do the same thing.”
Ogrodnik’s legacy of selfless service will carry far into the future, Lease said. “For over 40 years, Gene was there,” he said. “And for most of the time, it was in that administrative role.” He added, “I couldn’t ask for a better mentor … I will always be appreciative.”
As to his journey becoming president and CEO, he noted that while he counts himself lucky, he earned the respect of his peers. “It was not like they just handed it to me,” he said. “I earned it with the help that has been provided.”
He takes the school’s place in the profession seriously.
“In terms of the privates who do nothing but specialize in mortuary science, I think there are about 10 left,” he said, noting the institute was founded in 1939. “They call us ‘the flagship of mortuary education’ – and I would like to say the flagship is sailing strong right now.”
Much of that strength can be credited to the youth and energy currently on display at PIMS, Lease said.
“We are doing things differently,” he said. “For instance, our social media coordinator, Annie Cerutti, is terrific. As I came into this role, I said we are not telling our own message. If we just sit here advertising in trade journals, no one is listening to us. We are just sitting here in a magazine. This is where we have to go.”
Cerutti has helped bring PIMS to the next level. “She is responsible for so much of our virtual presence via social media — she is extremely creative and a genuine talent when it comes to this type of media,” he said.
The school has also reevaluated the restorative arts experience.
“It used to be you’d give students a plastic skull and build a face on it – make it look like Lady Gaga or whomever,” he said. “We said that is unacceptable and that is not what we do in restorative arts. We will never build Lady Gaga’s face, Brad Pitt’s face or anyone else’s face. Let’s make it real.”
In 2020, PIMS teamed up with a Hollywood special effects artist, and now students are given a model of a face with injuries to an eye, nose, ear or lip. They work on those faces to make them look well again. The models can be used over and over again.
“When we made the announcement to the world that we were going to do this, we did it to a Queen song – ‘We Will Rock You.’ And that has been our mantra: We will rock you. We will do something like you’ve never seen before.”
That theme will continue into the future, as PIMS is gearing up to introduce a brand-new embalming room in the fall, Lease said. It will be state of the art, he said.
Navigating the Pandemic
Before becoming president and CEO, Lease had to help steer the school through the COVID-19 pandemic as its program director – and it was no easy task.
“When it hit in March 2020, we received the government order that we needed to close down,” he said. “Some of our senior staff all met that day at work the first Monday after the order, and we said, ‘Well, we can push the schedule back’ since they were talking about 15 days to stop the spread. We said, ‘If anything else happens, the world just changed.’ Well, the world changed.”
PIMS started fielding messages from the state department of education on what it could and could not do. Suddenly, it needed to find an alternative learning platform that could not duplicate what it offered online students, Lease said.
PIMS made an earnest attempt to meet the state’s guidelines, and the alternative learning platform remains an option as COVID guidelines remain in effect – although since fully reopening, the school has been able to conduct in-person instruction as usual while operating its traditional online program, Lease said.
“We could not just say, ‘You are an online student,’” Lease explained, referring to the learning parameters under COVID. “To do that, they would have to become an online student. But they didn’t want that – that is why they came to campus.”
COVID changed life at the school in other ways, too. For instance, previously the institution’s care facility was taking care of about 40 to 50 people per month, but at the peak of the pandemic, it was handling the remains of almost 100 people per month, Lease said.
The big transition was when state regulators said the school could reopen but that only so many students could be in a class at one time.
“Previously, we had a normal operation where classes would run from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every day, and then students would go to their jobs or do clinical embalming,” Lease said.
But as a result of state directives, the school transitioned to a two-day-per-week schedule where students took classes from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It worked so well, and students liked it so much, that it remains in place to this day, Lease said.
“We created modular schedule blocks, and if this was your module, you would be on campus two days and you went home for three days,” he said. “Through a really horrible thing, we now have a better schedule. It made us think about campus education, because maybe you live an hour or two away from here and you don’t want to move to Pittsburgh, but if you may be OK with driving that distance two days a week — you can do an Airbnb for a night and then go back home. We can’t go back to the old way now – they don’t want it.”
As the school’s former head of online education services, Lease holds its online students near to his heart, but he noted that while it’s a great option for many students, “It can never be the campus experience. I don’t say that to denounce the quality of our online program or anyone else’s, but it just can’t be the same experience.”
To succeed as an online student, you must take charge of your own learning, Lease observed. “There are some kids who need a teacher talking to them,” he said. “That type of structured online learning is not for everyone.”
Enrollment at the school – as at other mortuary programs – is going up, Lease said. Today, the school is about evenly split between online students and in-person students, he added. There are more than 400 students overall.
“The online applications probably come in two or three to one compared with on-campus applications,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll accept you into the online program. The fact is, you may think you can go online, but when we evaluate certain criteria, maybe we don’t think it is for you. We have told people we have looked at as online candidates that we think they’d do better as an on-campus student. Some transferred over and others have gone with another program.” He added, “I do not want to become exclusively an online school or even a 70/30 or 80/20 school.”
He added that the school’s decedent care center offers on-campus students a great benefit, although the school’s online students would probably have an easier time getting a funeral home in their area approved to do embalming rather than flying into Pittsburgh.
Moving the Profession Forward
Asked about the pool of mortuary science students, Lease noted he is aware that some funeral professionals believe the majority of up and comers expect to earn and achieve too much too soon – and that some believe today’s students sport too many tattoos and piercings and are simply not cut out for funeral service.
When students arrive, he’s quick to tell them that not everyone will finish the program once they realize what funeral service is all about. He tells them “common” men and women cannot do the job – and that when you finish the program, it’s because you are “uncommon.”
Speaking more about the pool of students, he said, “Do they look different? Possibly. I’m an old guy. When people had tattoos when I was young, it meant you had been in prison or in the military – it was people you did not mess with.” He went on, “We make it clear that there are rules of conformity, and when you go into the profession, people may not take you seriously. Pump the brakes. But with that said, when you have labeled someone, you have negated their potential to be an amazing caregiver and an amazing funeral professional. And I don’t think that is a good place for us to be. My mother said, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ We have to stop that.”
Fortunately, the American Board of Funeral Service has indicated that enrollment at mortuary colleges is up across the board – not just at PIMS. Part of the reason may be because some people found that they were displaced from their jobs as a result of the pandemic but saw funeral directors working straight through. Others were exposed to a loss because of COVID and became interested in funeral service as a career, he speculated.
The problem, however, is that even if national enrollment at mortuary colleges goes from 3,000 or 4,000 students to 6,000 to 7,000, that is still not too many when you consider there are more than 331 million people living in the United States.
“Yes, it is encouraging as that is a big tick up, but some of them will say this isn’t what they bargained for,” he said.
“You need a servant’s heart,” he said. “You need the ability to understand the pain that someone else is going through. COVID lit a fire in some of those hearts.”
Whoever comes into funeral service, PIMS will encourage them to be creative, Lease said. “The more creative you are, the more the funeral profession wants you – and I think that is a good thing,” he said.
Moving forward, Lease hopes to establish PIMS as a brand more than ever before. When people think of funeral service – particularly when it comes to funeral service education – he wants them to think of PIMS.
“I want to take our legacy and cement our brand even more,” he said. “I also want us to take a larger perspective and consider regional accreditation as a school.” Such a move, he said, would allow students the chance to transfer credits more easily as they seek to earn other degrees and credentials. He wants to help online students in this regard as well, he said.
“We are continuously looking for opportunities to advocate for not just the brand but the profession,” he said.
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