Kenai family exemplifies hard work, community service

Working Stiffs

Posted: Sunday, September 22, 2002

Sometimes boring is a good thing.

Tim and Terri Wisniewski of Kenai describe themselves as being pretty dull. They aren't movie stars or secret agents, they don't race fast cars or go skydiving for entertainment, they don't speak with exotic accents (although Terri is from Minnesota), they aren't famous and they don't particularly want to be.

Their lives mostly revolve around their work and their four children. When they do get some spare time, it is spent golfing, doing water aerobics, country line dancing, visiting their cabin in Nikiski or just staying at home.

On the whole, not very exciting, they say. But what the Wisniewskis may lack in excitement, they make up for in their dedication, hard work and community service.

Tim Wisniewski owns and operates Peninsula Memorial Chapel, as well as five other funeral homes in the state, and Tim's Carpet and Steam Cleaning service. Terri owns and operates The Haircutters salon in Kenai.

You live WHERE?

The prospect of living in a funeral home may seem unusual to some people and downright creepy to others, but to the Wisniewski family, it is nothing out of the ordinary.

Tim and Terri Wisniewski live above Peninsula Memorial Chapel with their three children -- now that the oldest has left for college.

Raising the children above the funeral home posed some unique challenges, which mostly dealt with not disturbing the decorum of the chapel and funeral home office downstairs. The kids weren't allowed to play in front of the building and they had to be careful not too make too much noise when a service was going on.

"The kids don't seem to have any abnormalities," Terri said. "When their friends are over it's hard, and they want to go downstairs. We just don't let them go in the embalming room."

Trying to get a baby-sitter to come to the house was a difficult task.

"I used to think, 'What's wrong with us?'" Terri said. "The minute you'd tell them where we live, they'd call back and say they can't come."

It may seem a little unusual to some people, but to the Wisniewskis, the funeral home is their home as well.

"When we're up here we don't even think about it," Terri said.

Not everyone is as well-adjusted to the idea as they are.

"It amazes me what thoughts there are about a funeral home," Tim said.

On one occasion he met with a hospice group that had all sorts of misconceptions.

"They thought there were meat hooks and bodies laying all over on pool tables."

Before Tim met Terri, he tried to get a date with a woman who resisted going out with him because of his profession.

"She finally agreed to go and we had a good time and had things in common," he said. "At the end of the date she said, 'I had a good time. You're just like a normal person.'"

This is no surprise to Tim.

"Where I come from, I had lots of friends who are funeral directors," he said. "I would guess we're as normal as people get. This is what you do. There's dead people (downstairs)."

They have made Kenai their home for more than 20 years and have spent that time raising their family and building their businesses with hard work and support from each other.

Tim moved to Kenai from Toledo, Ohio, in 1976 when he was 25. He came here hoping to make his dream of owning his own funeral home a reality. Tim's family has been involved in the the funeral home business for longer than Tim has been alive. His grandfather owned two funeral homes, his father helped out in the business, and his mother and brother are funeral directors.

"I think if dad had been a carpenter, I would have done that," Tim said.

Tim started his career working for his grandfather, driving the hearse and doing other duties. He became a licensed funeral director but found no room for advancement in the family business.

"Basically there was so much family in it, there wasn't really room for me," he said. "I thought I wanted to (own a funeral home), I got licensed and the reality of it was I didn't really care to be working for my family. I didn't care to be managed, I wanted to do it myself."

So Tim decided to set out on his own. After looking through some books on Alaska, he decided it was the place for him.

"This was a last-ditch effort," he said. "... I wanted to do things the way I wanted to do them. Alaska affords you that mentality."

"Alaska or bust," Terri added.

Once Tim decided to come to Alaska, he wrote resume letters to every funeral home in the state. He got a call a week later a funeral home in Old Town Kenai. During the interview Tim made inquiries into what kind of operation the funeral home offered and had a difficult time getting a straight answer.

"I asked him about the business and he kept telling me it was 'a frontier set-up,'" he said. "I asked what it looked like and he said, 'We just take care of business.'"

Despite the ambiguity, Tim made the move and was surprised by what he found.

"It was a 12-by-50-foot trailer," he said. "The embalming room was in the kitchen. It was like nothing I could imagine."

Tim spent a year and a half working there before he decided it was time to start a business of his own.

"I thought the community deserved more than a trailer," he said.

Tim went back to Ohio and got some unused funeral home paraphernalia and a 1966 white hearse that had been his grandfather's. In 1978, he drove the hearse and supplies up the Alaska Highway back to Kenai and opened the first Peninsula Memorial Chapel in the front section of what is now the Peninsula Oilers Baseball Club building on Cook Avenue and Main Street.

"When I started it was really hand-to-mouth," he said. "I knew I could do a better job (than his former employer). I did everything by myself, I didn't have any help. After six months, I thought it might not work."

Interference from his old employer didn't help matters. At the time, Tim was living in a trailer and parked the hearse in the driveway. One morning he got a phone call asking if he had looked outside that day. When he looked, he saw that someone had dumped four gallons of orange paint on the white hearse. Aside from the funeral home, Tim's old employer also owned a car wash in town.

"The paint was the same as on the car wash," Tim said. "It doesn't take a doggone genius to figure this out. ... The population was pretty small. He thought he owned the whole town."

Despite these early setbacks, Tim found a way to make ends meet, and enough black paint to restore the hearse. He heard of a janitorial opening at the National Bank of Alaska branch in Kenai. He went in for a loan for the funeral home and got the job cleaning at the same time. Thus began his sideline as Tim's Carpet and Steam Cleaning service.

"It was a no-brainer," he said. "It worked with me because it was flexible. It was survival. You can't sit around in a funeral home and wait for people to die."

Tim's janitorial clientele expanded to three NBA branches in the central peninsula, as well as other businesses and private homes. The janitorial schedule was convenient for him because he could work at the funeral home during the day and do janitorial work on nights and weekends.

Before long Tim got some help in operating both business, his wife, Terri. The two met in 1980 and were married a year later.

Terri is originally from Minnesota. Like many immigrants to this area, she first came to Kenai just to visit. Terri's sister lived here, so Terri came to visit after her graduation from high school in 1978. One trip was all it took to hook Terri, and she returned for good in 1979.

She attended one year at Kenai Peninsula College then joined one of the first classes to attend Soldotna Beauty School in the Beemun's building. She studied hair dressing and cosmetology and, after becoming licensed in the two areas, she went to work at The Haircutters in the Kenai Mall.

"That's where everyone went," Tim said, "You stood there if you wanted to see anybody. I used to strip and wax floors there and it would take me all day because I'd see everybody I knew."

A year after the two were married, they bought The Haircutters and Terri became a business owner at 21.

"It was an opportunity that came up," she said. "I didn't really think about owning my own shop. I didn't know much about business at 21, but Tim was a big help."

Terri expanded the shop from two stations to four and eventually moved the business to its current location on Willow Street next to Charlotte's Restaurant.

Tim helped Terri with the ins and outs of business ownership, while Terri contributed her efforts to Tim's businesses, including cleaning carpets and waxing floors.

"It was fun, but I don't have to do that anymore," she said.

Terri also helps out in the funeral home, preparing hair and makeup on deceased women before viewings.

"It's always hard when you know the people," she said. "When I first started I didn't know anybody so it wasn't too hard. It's something you get used to."

For Tim, its invaluable to have Terri's help.

"I always try to provide viewing for people, it's good closure for families," he said. "It's such a premium to have Terri here to fix hair and makeup."

Usually, Terri gets a picture to go by when preparing someone for viewing. But that isn't always the case.

"One time they didn't give us a picture," she said. "So I think I put all her hair forward and the a family member said 'I wish we'd known you when she was alive, because that's the best she's ever looked.'"

Having three sources of income was a boon for the Wisniewskis, because if one business went through a tough time there were the other two to fall back on. The most difficult part of business ownership became scheduling.

"The hard thing was having four kids (while running a business)," Terri said.

The Wisniewskis' four children, Lacey, 20, Grant, 18, Hailey, 16, and Justin, 13, are now almost all grown and out of the house, but when Tim and Terri were just starting out, it took some juggling to meet the demands of parenting.

The down side to business ownership for the Wisniewskis was the time it took.

"Growing up around a business you see the responsibility you have," Tim said. "If you don't do it, nobody is going to do it. People don't understand the sacrifice you do in private business. We used to say we hate weekends because you can't always count on them."

But the flip side to being a business owner is you can set your own hours, which was an immeasurable boon for the Wisniewskis when it came to taking care of their kids.

This arrangement worked out so well the Wisniewskis never had to put their kids in day care, except once. Conflicting schedules required them to take their youngest to day care. Justin already was toiled trained, but Terri put a diaper on him just in case before dropping him off, which he was not happy about.

"You know your kid's scream," Tim said. "I called and heard him screaming and that was it."

Scheduling became easier in some respects when the Wisniewskis built the Peninsula Memorial Chapel on the Kenai Spur Highway in 1984. The building has been expanded five times. One of those expansions added living quarters above the funeral home, so Tim could manage the business and be around to watch the kids at the same time.

Though it made parenting easier, it also left Tim on call at the funeral home 24-7.

"If you see people who need help, you've just got to help them," he said, in reference to a man who stopped by the funeral home at 4:30 one morning. "If you see they need you and want to talk to you, that's what you do."

Being a funeral director is a time-intensive occupation in and of itself. Opening other funeral homes across the state, in Homer, Seward, Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks, meant Tim had even more to manage.

The use of cell phones and hiring other funeral directors have helped lighten his load, but he still remains closely involved with the business.

"I feel like a missionary in a way," he said. "People pretty much put it in my hands to do the right thing, to help them get through it. In Ohio, the only thing people didn't know when they came in was what color casket they would get. Here you really need to help families and stay with them."

Handling memorial arrangements in Alaska may be more time consuming, but it is a rewarding experience, Tim said.

"When I can really help people I feel a lot of accomplishment. People always come back and say thank you."

Dealing with Alaskans is another perk of the job.

"People in Alaska are really resilient," he said. "If there's a problem that happens, they always go on. It's nice that people just roll with the punches."

In once instance, a family was digging a grave and Tim tried to warn them the hole wasn't going to be big enough, but they wanted to try it anyway.

"Halfway down, the casket gets stuck in the ground," Tim said. "All the pall bearers started cracking up. They said,'You know, Dad would have thought this would have been funny. He never wanted to go easy.'"

Tim makes it a point to allow families to be involved in memorial arrangements, preparations and ceremonies in any way they wish.

"They ask if they can dress her or do her hair and I think, 'Why are you asking me? It's your mom,'" Tim said. "We're just a service. Whatever part they want to do, I'm fine with. I think it's real nice that people (get involved). I encourage it because it can make people feel better."

Tim involves himself in some services as well. He plays "Taps" for any veteran's burial, as well as for community events.

"Don't you think the funeral director should play 'Taps?'" he said. "I like the idea that I play 'Taps,' it's like Terri being a beautician (and preparing people for viewings)" he said. "It made my parents feel like those trumpet lessons were worth it."

Tim has played the trumpet since he was young. While he was working for his grandfather, he attended a burial for a veteran where "Taps" was played over a reel-to-reel tape. That level of disrespect bothered him, so now he plays at any burial or community event where he's needed.

"I can see that it means a lot to the veterans," he said. "You don't really think about veterans when you're young. But you really look at the sacrifices these guys made, and I can't even fathom what these people have done. They're the most patriotic people you will ever meet."

Aside from his trumpet duties, Tim plays at his church, Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church in Kenai, and at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center on occasion, although he said he's not sure the seniors want to see the funeral director over there.

His other community involvements include chairing the city's Parks and Recreation Committee and being the first chair of the city's Beautification Committee, serving on the Kenai Chamber of Commerce board of directors and starting a local Big Brothers, Big Sisters program.

He used to be active in the Lions Club and was the first chair of the community cleanup event. He received the governor's award for volunteers in the 1980s recognizing his efforts and a Kenai Citizen of the Year award.

Terri is likewise involved in their church and helped in the Lions program. Now her volunteer time is mostly spent working with support groups and booster clubs related to her kids' school activities.

"It seems like we could be busy with school stuff every night," she said.

The opportunities Kenai provides for community involvement is one of the main reasons the Wisniewskis like living here.

"If you really want to make a difference, you can," Tim said. "And there's no excuse. If you want it bad enough, it's always within your grasp to make a change."

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