Rotary Minute: Mark Higgins

MarkHigginswebFrom Animal House to Art Collector.  A good humored delivery has marked many of these Rotary Minutes, so what kind of humor should we expect from the leader of Hall-Wynn Funeral Service and Crematory? Not what you might think. Imagine if you will Mark in an impeccable blue suit and helmet on his motor scooter, Zorro. Or a bunch of college guys making a dorm of the basement of a mortuary. Only once did my eyes catch the eyes of a table mate with the question “what did he mean by that?” when Mark declared that he collected art but mainly he collected people. But he was quick to clarify with a Eudora Welty quote, “I work at keeping my friendships in good repair.”

Mark, we’re glad you chose Durham as a place not to grow up in.

Below is the full text of Mark’s Rotary Minute.

“Where did you grow up?” I am often asked. Answer: I haven’t done that yet. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Or, to the question, “where are you from?” Answer: My 3 siblings and I were born in Evanston, IL on Chicago’s north shore, where we lived until I was 12, when my father, a Time Magazine exec, was transferred to Pittsburgh, so I was raised in both wonderful cities. Clueless about career, I figured liberal arts were safe, so I went off to Hope College in Holland, Michigan and majored in Communication. Within weeks, I was in the chow line with a fellow student in uniform, and learned he was a paramedic with a local funeral home that ran a sideline ambulance service. They employed college students to man evenings and weekends. With a possible job opening, I was invited to stop by and go on some calls. At 18, lights and sirens sounded like a blast, so by Thanksgiving I took training and was hired, moving into the basement of the funeral parlor with 5 other students (think, Animal House) to the utter horror of my parents, though quickly buffered by the news they’d be saving on dorm cost. Shortly thereafter, I became intrigued by the upstairs activity of the funeral home and thus began my career discernment. By sophomore year, I was settled on coming into this profession, visualizing myself in a human service endeavor where I might make some difference to people in crisis. Upon graduation I sought an internship in Greensboro, as I had a slew of friends down this way from having been a camp counselor below Charlotte through college summers. I then completed studies at Pittsburgh Institute of Funeral Service and re-joined the firm in Greensboro. A year later, I took a position with the leading Int’l trade association in my field, moving back to my native, Evanston, IL. I stayed 10 years as a consultant and Marketing Director, but with a lingering desire to one day have my own business and work again as a practitioner. During that decade I made incredible contacts, covering 46 states and 8 of 10 Canadian provinces. I am blessed to have friends just about everywhere.

In 1992, Hall-Wynne Funeral Service appeared on the radar looking for a successor and I entered negotiations. I arrived here 20 years ago and haven’t looked back. It was then a very different Durham, gritty and rough around the edges, but as my perceptive mother remarked, “just you wait, you’re going to love this city of hidden treasures and meet the most interesting people ever.” How right she was.  Among my first chums was local legend George Pyne, a true Renaissance man and eccentric, who provided unforgettably colorful adventures in the Bull City.

I joined this Club in ‘94, and am sure my grandfather smiled down as he was a 55 year Rotarian with perfect attendance.

Today I provide leadership to 4 funeral homes within our company family though I am still passionately hands-on as a funeral director. In recent years I have moved into the educational arena in end-of-life care, offering programs to hospice groups, faith communities and schools. I am a regular at Duke Divinity, instructing seminarians how to conduct funerals and handle pastoral issues. Most days I feel like the luckiest man on the planet to have a job that is deeply sublime and satisfying.  When asked about retirement or relocation, I reply, “I’m not leaving until Hall-Wynne drags me out feet first!”

Outside of work, I remain in perpetual motion. Thank God for ADD medication! I read, cook, entertain, exercise, travel, am a cantor at my church, take weekly lessons on the hammered dulcimer, buff up my Spanish with Latino friends, and ride a silver motor scooter named Zorro. Someday I may trade it for one of those egg-shaped organic vehicles in the window around the corner. I also study art history and visit museums, and have been to over 120. I collect art, but mainly collect people, while subscribing to the words of author Eudora Welty, “I work at keeping my friendships in good repair.”

So there’s a vignette of my little earthly enterprise. I’m constantly reminded that one day I will be dead a long time.  To some degree, all our possessions, successes, jobs and education are trappings that get us through an ordinary day. In the end, when we latch on to the Whole – a bigger reality than ourselves – we’re now connected to something inexhaustible and of enduring value. And doesn’t Rotary enable us to do just that? Thanks for listening.

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