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Vernon Wallace, funeral director, dies at age 82

Obit phoVernL. Wallace owner Wallace Broadview Funeral Home Broadview IL.

Obit photo of Vernon L. Wallace, owner of Wallace Broadview Funeral Home in Broadview, IL.

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Updated: October 7, 2012 8:04AM

It didn’t matter whether Vernon Wallace was planning a funeral for someone down the street or a memorial for a gospel supernova who was so famous that many of her 6,000 mourners referred to her by first name only: “Mahalia.”

Either way, he kept the proceedings punctual, smooth and, above all, dignified.

Mr. Wallace buried thousands of people, including many Chicago VIPs, in his 61-year career as a funeral director at the House of Branch and at his own business, the Wallace Broadview Funeral Home.

Mr. Wallace, 82, died Aug. 30 at Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park.

“He was one of the pioneers,” said Carol Williams, executive director of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, the oldest and largest organization of African Americans in the funeral industry. Often he opened up his own parlors to new mortuary school graduates, so they could gain footing in their careers by arranging funerals.

He handled many of the details for a 1972 farewell service in Chicago for gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, who sang in world capitals and for U.S. presidents. Her rich, supple voice was not only a backdrop for church but for the civil rights movement. She performed at the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

So many people wanted to attend her tribute, Mayor Richard J. Daley offered McCormick Place as the setting. The mourners included Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who reported that her late husband said, “A voice like Mahalia Jackson’s doesn’t even come once in a century — it comes once in a millennium.”

“It was just a huge, tremendous crowd,” recalled Mr. Wallace’s wife of 48 years, Gladys. “He was an artist at this, and excellent. Everything had to be correct for the family.”

Mr. Wallace buried many West Side politicians and Baptist ministers. He also handled funeral arrangements for coach Luther Bedford, featured in the basketball documentary, “Hoop Dreams.”

Behind the scenes, he often did pro-bono services for crime and fire victims, said his nephew, Rory Momon. Mr. Wallace funded Momon’s education at mortuary school, and he bestowed college scholarships on other promising students.

“He said, ‘Be strong; don’t be a pushover, and always be on time’— and, ‘Hard work never hurt anybody,’ ” his nephew said.

Mr. Wallace always wore a black suit, a black-and-white tie, and a red rose stickpin, said his niece, Sharon McDonald. He was a master at keeping funeral processions on time, checking his watch and urging cars forward with a smooth-but-firm, “Move, move.”

Even after capitulating to the modernity of a telephone answering service, he still insisted on keeping a phone next to his bed to go out on calls in the middle of the night, his nephew said.

He loved to see people laughing, talking and eating. Vernon and Gladys Wallace hosted a Christmas dinner for friends and family that turned the funeral home into a festive smorgasbord of turkey, ham, roast beef, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, shrimp trays, cakes and pies.

“We would clear out one of our largest chapels. We would set the table, a long table,” said his niece, Menai Edwards. “He had a Christmas tree that was all the way to the ceiling. He had all the lights around the tree and he would say his Christmas blessing.”

Mr. Wallace was introduced to the industry as a boy when he visited the West Side funeral home of an uncle, Joseph Wallace.

“He would look around, and play funeral director, and play around the caskets,” his wife said. “He wasn’t afraid.”

After Marshall High School, he attended Herzl Junior College and Worsham College of Mortuary Science. He served 14 months in the U.S. Army in Korea. He worked at the House of Branch Funeral Home until starting his own funeral home in 1988.

Mr. Wallace also is survived by his brother, Arnold, and many nieces and nephews.

A viewing is planned from noon to 4 p.m. Friday at Wallace Broadview Funeral Home, 2020 W. Roosevelt Rd., Broadview. A memorial tribute is scheduled 6 pm. to 8 p.m. Friday at Original Providence Baptist Church, 515 N. Pine. And a homegoing celebration is set for Saturday, with visitation at 9 a.m. and services at 11 a.m., at Rock of Ages Baptist Church, 1309 Madison St., Maywood. Burial is at Oakridge Glen Oaks Cemetery in Hillside.

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