With more than 42 years spent in the service of grieving families, Pat and Sue Patton have touched countless lives in their saddest moments as directors of Patton Schad Funeral Home. It has been a deeply gratifying life that they can look back on in retirement with satisfaction.
“We wanted to serve every family as if they were our own,” Pat said.
His journey into mortuary science was rather indirect. He started at the University of Minnesota with a goal of attending medical school. Although an organic chemistry class played a part in the change of direction, it was also the fact that Pat fell in love with the curriculum in mortuary science — grief and loss, the psychology of death, the sociology of death. He was very grateful to learn under Dr. Robert Fulton, well-known for his work in the field of death, grief and bereavement. He created the first college course on death and dying in the United States.
“It made me feel that I wanted to continue on this path and see where it led,” Pat said.
First, it led to a one-year internship in Virginia, Minnesota. That was too far from family and friends for young newlyweds Pat and Sue. They moved back to Minneapolis for five years before moving to Melrose in 1984, when they joined Schad Funeral Homes.
“We wanted to live in a smaller community to raise our family,” Pat said.
He and Sue bought the business in 1993, and it was renamed Patton Schad. Bernie Schad worked for them for two years full-time and then part-time for 15 years.
“Bernie was a great teacher in the profession but also a great example of how to become involved in the community,” Pat said.
In addition to the Sauk Centre location, Patton Schad is in Melrose, Grey Eagle and Freeport. Sauk Centre accounts for about half of the families served.
There have been big changes in the funeral service industry during the Pattons’ time. Perhaps the biggest one is the increase in the number of cremations. In 1984, cremations were 2% of the total. Now, it’s about 38% here. (Cremations statewide are 55%.)
“There is a generation of people who have not been confronted by the reality of death, when they haven’t seen the deceased body of their loved one. ‘Seeing is believing’ is really true,” Pat said.
Even with cremations, Patton Schad offers the chance to view the body first. More than simply a matter of identification, it’s their last chance to say goodbye.
“Invariably, family members will draw others in and everyone leaves feeling so glad. They often say that they never thought it would be so helpful (to the grieving process),” he said.
Working in the funeral home business means being almost always on call. Pat has worked up to 23 days in a row.
“There is no predicting,” he said. “Since then, we went from two funeral directors to four. We set up a schedule.”
It’s a bit more difficult to find employees than previously.
“Mortuary science classes are half the size they used to be,” Pat said.
Rural funeral homes have their own challenges. For young people in funeral service, it’s not easy to meet people in rural areas. For young marrieds, they wonder what their spouse will do for a job. Culturally, there are not as many offerings.
“Many funeral directors now are second-career people,” he said.
Having two locations on the Interstate helps, as “we’re positioned well to meet many of those challenges,” Pat said.
Traditionally in funeral service, Sue ran the business in the background, paying the bills and taking care of the office.
“She didn’t always receive the recognition she deserved that showed how important she has been in making this business successful,” Pat said.
“Although we were partners in the business, somebody had to be the boss and that was always Pat,” Sue said.
Since 2000, Sue has been a licensed insurance agent. She was responsible for Patton Schad administrative duties, managing accounts payable and coordinating funeral follow-up with families served. She also coordinated the weekly radio program “Music and Memories” and the annual Christmas Service of Remembrance.
The Pattons’ two sons, Nathan and Adam, chose different career paths. Nathan lives in Florida with his family and that is where the Pattons will continue to spend winters, with the “weather, sunshine and family.” Adam lives in Minneapolis with his wife and new son. The Pattons have plans to spend summers in Minnesota and attend as many Gopher games as possible.
Patton Schad is in good hands with new owner Linda Holm, a long-time employee.
Looking back over 40-plus years, seeing how they could honor life’s memories for so many people has given Pat and Sue a sense of fulfillment.
“Helping friends and neighbors at the worst time in their lives gave us a tremendous feeling of satisfaction,” he said. “It makes us feel like we made a difference.”