By Thomas A. Parmalee
Mike Squires, the founder and editor-in-chief of Southern Calls, remembers the first time that death touched his life.
He was 10 years old when his dog, Heidi, was hit by a car and killed in 1958.
“My mom didn’t have the heart to send me to school that day,” he said, explaining that they buried the dog in his backyard.
By the end of that week, he had started the Squires Animal Memorial Cemetery, and he’s been helping honor the dead and serve the living ever since.
“I started with local dogs and cats and a few roadkill … whatever else I could find to bury,” he said.
Death would enter his life again Sept. 13, 1962, when he was still 14 years old.
That was the day his father, Ansel Squires, died. The funeral home staff came to pick up the body in the early hours of the morning.
“Even at my age, I could comprehend that everything was going to be OK,” he said, recalling the professionalism of the funeral home’s staff.
That experience moved him a little closer to the idea that perhaps he was meant to one day be an undertaker. A couple years later when he was at a department store with his mother, he saw George Heyward Goldfinch Sr. of Goldfinch Funeral Home (now Goldfinch Funeral Services) in Conway, South Carolina, which served his family when his father died.
“I grabbed Mama’s dress and said, ‘There he is,’” he recalled.
Of course, he approached Goldfinch with his mother, Louise, and asked him about a job. He landed one between his junior and senior year in high school, earning $40 per week and renting a room for $10 a week. He was given an $80 suit and had $5 taken out of his check for eight weeks to pay for half of it. He worked there from 1965 to 1978.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” he said. “And when you look at Southern Calls magazine, it reflects a lot of those things that Heyward Goldfinch believed in.” He explained, “If you are going to do it, do it right. He was a perfectionist.”
Now consisting of five locations, Goldfinch proved a great place to learn the trade of funeral service, Squires said.
In 1979, Squires took a job at McEwen Funeral Services in Charlotte, North Carolina, which then had three locations and has since grown to four locations and is one of the highest-volume firms in the state. Later, he served as vice president and general manager of Wilson Funeral Service, also in Charlotte.
“The one thing I absolutely regret is I did not go to mortuary school,” Squires said. “I am not a licensed embalmer – it just was not my thing, but it is such a vital part of the profession.”
Then, in 1998, he had the opportunity to become executive director of the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association, where he would remain for almost 20 years.
One of the most important things he did as executive director was turn the association’s Mid-Winter Conference into a signature event.
“I liked graphics, and I started brochures,” he explained. “And several years later, Georgia had some problems – and North Carolina had some problems.”
So, he started advertising the Mid-Winter Conference in those states and elsewhere and before long, everyone was going to the event.
“For a small state that had only 120 rooftops, we were at one time hitting over 600 people attending our Mid-Winter Conference,” he said.
At that time, virtually every state association had a magazine – and South Carolina was no different.
“One of the things I fell in love with was the magazine, the Palmetto Director” he said. “I just sort of tried to raise the bar on that and tell good stories, and I got some good writers.”
He loved publishing photos of old funeral homes and telling the long-lost stories of the profession, which reminded him of going up into his Aunt Lucy’s attic as a boy, where he’d spend hours looking at old Life magazines from the 1940s and 1950s with pictures featuring life during World War II and the Korean War.
“I still do love the big double-page, black-and-white photos,” he said.
Other than funeral service, the love of publishing was something that was always with him, he said – although he admits to not being able to write all that well. But he’s a fine editor, he added. In high school, he served as editor of the school newspaper, which was called The Tom Tom and was published three or so times a year.
At one point, while serving as executive director for the South Carolina Funeral Directors Association, he considered buying out John Yopp, the publisher of Southern Funeral Director. But he ultimately decided to put some more years in at the association before pursuing his dream of being a publisher.
The Birth of a Publishing Titan
In September 2013, Squires launched Southern Calls, envisioning it as a magazine that would serve the Southern states.
He quickly learned that his reach would be much broader.
From the start, he focused on making the magazine one that would lean on funeral directors to tell the stories of funeral service. “For a good while, I used the tagline ‘A Funeral Director’s Perspective,’” he said.
He approaches advertising a bit differently than most, placing almost all the ads at the very front of the magazine before transitioning to articles – pieces that often include wonderful photography as a centerpiece. The images show what funeral service is all about in the South.
Sometimes, he runs a current advertisement alongside a vintage advertisement, allowing readers to see how funeral service – and the marketing that goes along with it – has changed over time. “People, places and passions are always the main themes of the magazine,” he said.
Each month, he prints and sends out about 4,500 copies of the magazine, making sure to send several copies each to his writers and the subjects of the articles. While he has no shortage of subscribers, he sells a few hundred individual copies of the magazine each month, he said.
“With the name Southern Calls, I visualized serving about 14 or 15 southern states, but I started getting subscribers from elsewhere with the very first issue,” he said. “One of the very first subscriptions I got was from California.”
If he doesn’t have subscribers in the 48 contiguous states, he must be pretty close, he said. Outside of the South, the magazine is particularly popular in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio, he said.
Southern Calls prides itself on being pro funeral service – you won’t find anything negative in the magazine.
“I have never run an article that is detrimental to funeral service,” Squires proudly proclaimed. “We all know the horror stories, but that is not what Southern Calls is about.”
Over the years, the magazine has published numerous noteworthy articles.
“Getting that interview with Robert L. Waltrip was just phenomenal,” he said of his visit to the top floor of Service Corporation International in Houston, where he met the late founder of the world’s largest death-care company.
Squires and his team were asked to send 25 questions to Waltrip to think about ahead of time, and he made sure Waltrip knew he was not there to “share any of the bad stories,” he said. A photographer joined him along with Luke Teague, the magazine’s associate editor, who is a funeral director at Thomas Poteet and Son Funeral Directors in Augusta, Georgia.
“Mr. Waltrip was sitting there, and I could see his desk was clean,” Squires recalled. “I could see two sheets with the questions I sent, and I could see some of them were highlighted.” He continued, “Luke and I strategized the night before … and what I did was I said, ‘Mr. Waltrip, I know I sent the questions, but before I get to those, would you mind sharing with me the day your daddy died?’”
That single question launched a wide-ranging conversation in which Waltrip recalled what it was like growing up and how he was able to see his father in the hospital before he died. He also revealed how his dad was the greatest funeral director he ever knew but didn’t know much about managing a funeral home.
It was up to the younger Waltrip to work the business out of the debt it owed creditors after his father died, Squires explained.
“He really was business oriented,” Squires said of the legendary SCI founder. A turning point came when he realized it made more sense to keep the names of the owners on the businesses that he bought instead of changing them to “Waltrip Funeral Home,” Squires said.
Squires has made many friends in his role as editor-in-chief of Southern Calls, including Bob Boetticher Sr., who served as Waltrip’s longtime assistant and was instrumental in setting up that interview. Boetticher is also chairman of the National Museum of Funeral History, founder of LHT Consulting Group and is a regular contributing writer to the magazine.
Boetticher also played an important role in helping Squires publish another one of his most noteworthy articles – one focusing on the funeral of the Rev. Billy Graham.
“I had a front row seat,” Squires said, who published a special commemorative issue on the preacher’s funeral. Many funeral homes bought the issue in bulk, gifting it to ministers in their service area, he said.
It’s still hard for Squires to believe that he had a chance to be there for Graham’s funeral, as he remembers his parents watching the preacher on a black and white television. (In the image at the top of this article, Squires is shown with Teague under Graham’s funeral tent.)
He also had the chance to highlight “Mitchell’s Journey” in the June 2022 issue, which is a nonprofit organization with almost 300,000 followers on Facebook alone. The organization has become an internationally recognized beacon of hope for those struggling with a terminal illness or grief – as well as for those who want to support those going through such an ordeal.
In the issue, Chris Jones, the father of 10-year-old Mitch, who died of a rare disease called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a catastrophic muscle disease that is always fatal, writes a letter to the funeral director who served his family. The letter includes poignant photography that highlights Mitch’s vibrancy in life – as well as how heartbreaking it was to say goodbye.
Part of his letter reads:
It wasn’t until mid-morning when I returned to Mitchell’s room and noticed you left a single white rose on our son’s pillow. When I saw that gesture of compassion, I immediately fell to my knees and wept again.
Twenty-four hours would pass before we walked into your building – a place hiding in plain sight until then. Hands trembling and voices shaking, we fumbled over product catalogs and display rooms offering products we desperately didn’t want to think about, let alone purchase. You were kind and gave us all the time and space we needed.
Another article highlighted Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home, which served many of the young victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which occurred May 24, 2022.
The funeral home is right across the street from the school. When Claudia Perez, the funeral home’s office manager, looks out of her window, she can see the school, Squires said.
When the shooter crashed his car near the school the morning of the wreck, Perez called 911 and went to investigate, Squires said.
“And then the guy gets out, reaches back in and pulls the gun and literally is firing in the air, and she started running back,” Squires said. “He threw the gun over the fence and climbed over … he literally started walking down and shooting at random at windows and then got to the door and got in.”
Children began running out of the school, and the funeral home’s secretary ran out and motioned for them to run to the funeral home, Squires said. “When it was all said and done, they had about 125-150 kids at the funeral home for safety,” he said.
The issue that stands out the most because of its cover is the fall 2023 issue featuring Todd W. Van Beck, the legendary funeral director, funeral home historian and author, in an open casket, Squires said.
Deciding to put that picture on the cover involved a prolonged process, including asking his peers what they thought about such a move, Squires said.
“I talked to Jack Lechner (president and CEO of the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science) about it a couple of times, and he reminded me that Todd was a proponent of the open casket,” Squires said. “At just about every one of his seminars, he would have a slide or something about the open casket and how much he believed in it … So, I think that picture was so much of what he stood for.”
Numerous others in the profession said that Van Beck would be honored to be on the cover featured in such a fashion.
The magazine quickly became one of Southern Calls’ most popular issues, with hundreds being sold online as an individual issue. The issue also led many people to subscribe to the magazine for the first time or to renew their subscriptions, Squires said.
“I think I am one of the first people to put a dead man on the cover, but I have no regrets about it whatsoever,” he said.
The Two Sides of Death
In his professional life, Squires owes pretty much everything he is to death. As someone who thrives at being there for people when they need it the most, he’s done well for himself while doing some good in the world.
It’s likely no accident that his role as a funeral director has also played a pivotal role in his personal life as well.
He was a 38-year-old bachelor when a young woman came in with a prominent Baptist minister in the Charlotte area, Dr. Henry Crouch.
Gloria Bunn was 34-years old and had a 5-year-old son, Damon, and 11-year-old daughter, Stacey. Her husband, Jerry Hensley, was just 36 years old when she found him dead in his recliner of a massive heart attack.
The funeral was one of the largest that Squires ever found himself involved in, with a private graveside service afterward.
At the service, he helped carry her son, who wrapped his arms around his neck – it was a moment that Squires will never forget.
After the service, Gloria had a tough time getting her husband’s death certificate and had several conversations with Squires. Another member of her church, in the meantime, died, and Squires saw her again in his capacity as a funeral director. They enjoyed each other’s conversation and there was a connection, Squires said.
Unsure about the timing of asking Gloria out on a date, he sought the advice of one of her friends, who told him the “timing was right” and to “call her.”
Over the next several months, sparks between them flew and they married in fairly short order, Squires said. They’ve now been together over 38 years, and Squires adopted both of her children. He also became a member of the Baptist church, “which was a biggie,” he said.
But just as death brought the couple together, it would also deal them their toughest blow as a couple – and as individuals.
About three years after they were married – on July 10, 1989 – Squires received a phone call from a fellow church member asking about Gloria.
She was out looking at wallpaper, he said, and the person on the phone asked if they had a dog.
His response was no, but he knew Stacey had gotten a summer job walking the neighbor’s dog.
“She would go across the street and take the dog to the back of the church and run him around and then come back,” he said.
For some reason, however, on that day the dog bolted and pulled Stacey into the street and in front of a car.
“She was killed instantly,” Squires said, his voice choking up.
He quickly went to the scene and found her laying in the street, with emergency medical personnel still working on her. Then he had to go to the wallpaper shop and find his wife.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Squires said.
He walked in and asked the clerk if he could use the store’s office after he spotted his wife. When she got closer to him, she saw he was accompanied by a police officer, and her first words were “Damon” because he was a mischievous kid who sometimes got into trouble, Squires said.
“Stacey was just brilliant,” he explained. “Then she said, ‘No, no, not Stacey.’”
She must have said that more than 100 times before they got her into the office and had her sit down.
Stacey Hensley was just 15 years old when she died.
Where He Belongs
As the founder and editor-in-chief of Southern Calls, Squires believes he’s right where he’s meant to be – and he looks forward to continuing to serve the profession with a magazine like no other.
“The most rewarding thing is the magazine has been accepted,” he said, noting that he’s received so many thank you notes from people who give him credit for following his passion.
“Ever advertiser we have ever had, I tell them that we don’t take a single press release,” he said. “This is for funeral directors.”
He also believes the magazine is “the nicest publication there is” in the profession. “I’m also happy to be going beyond the southern states – and now I am starting to cover folks outside the South,” he said.
While he is now 75 years old, Squires is having too much fun to call it quits, he said. Even if something happens to him or the magazine is sold, “it has my handprint on it,” he said.
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