By Daniel Silliman
The boy saw the men in their suits, and he knew what he wanted to be.
He was 12. It was the 1950s. His great-grandmother had died and two men in smart suits rolled up in a big, black hearse. They took care of everything, they were in charge, and the boy was fascinated.
Today, when his name is equated with directing funerals in Clayton County, Thomas L. Scroggs recalls how he was enthralled by those old-school morticians.
"I think it was just infatuation with the big old cars, and watching the men -- how they were taking care of everybody and everything," Scroggs said.
About a month before his 15th birthday, Scroggs got a job working for Abercrombie and Patterson, a funeral home in Forest Park. That was June 1958, and ever since then, for 50 years now, Scroggs has been directing funerals.
"He doesn't do it for a living. That's what he is. That's what he is in his soul," said Scroggs' son, Kevin Scroggs.
The elder Scroggs is turning 65 this year, and he's celebrating his 50th year in the funeral industry. His son and his daughter, Keisha Holbrook, are throwing him a party on June 7.
"As far as I know, no one in Clayton has been in the funeral home business as long as my dad," Holbrook said. "My dad has put in so many hours of his life, we thought it would be interesting for people to be able to sit with him and talk to him."
Both of Scroggs' children work at Thomas L. Scroggs Funeral Directors, and they were looking through old pictures on Wednesday, in anticipation of the celebration, and they were talking about their dad and his business.
Kevin recounted how his father got his mortuary license from John A. Gupton College, in Nashville, Tenn., and how he had to sell his car to pay for part of the education. Thomas Scroggs didn't even have enough money to call his parents long distance, so he would call collect, say he was OK, and hang up.
In 1968, at the age of 24, after a decade in the funeral industry, Scroggs was able to get the business loans to buy Abercrombie and Patterson, his children said. That same year, Scroggs and his wife, Margie, had their first son.
Kevin Scroggs and Holbrook describe their father's rapid rise in a tone of awe, the awe owed to someone who knows his calling in life and pursues it single-mindedly, but Scroggs himself is more circumspect.
"I had," he said, "more energy than I had anything else. I was committed from day one. When I went into that funeral home, I made up my mind. I saw a lot of things that I felt I could do, and a lot of things I could improve on."
In the 1970s, Scroggs built himself a funeral home, Parkway Garden Chapel, which Kevin Scroggs claims was the first modern funeral home in the county. Before, funeral homes had always been converted houses, but Thomas Scroggs did something different with Parkway Garden Chapel.
"This was a modern facility from the ground up," Kevin Scroggs said. "He actually designed that building. He was very, very proud of that building."
Thomas Scroggs said he tried, over the years, to keep up with the modern developments, while resisting, at the same time, the corporate forces that emphasized money over service and reputation.
"In the South, it used to be people had two things they were committed to -- the funeral home and the church. It was not uncommon for people to follow you back to the funeral home, and it was not uncommon for them to be there until you put the body in the ground. Now the visitation is cut back to about two hours. Now people have commitments they didn't have back then, and everything's faster paced," Thomas Scroggs said.
During the 1990s, the family-owned business joined a corporate group of funeral homes, while the family continued to manage the local operations. Holbrook and Kevin Scroggs said the group went into bankruptcy in '99, though, reformed under a new name, and then began fighting with their father about the nature of directing funerals.
In 2004, Thomas Scroggs reopened an independent funeral home, with his own name on the sign, and now it is completely family-run, with Thomas and Margie Scroggs joined, on a daily basis, by their son, daughter, daughter-in-law and six grandchildren.
The Scroggs children grew up in the funeral home, and now another generation of the family is growing up in the business ,too. Thomas Scroggs recalled Kevin Scroggs, when a child, would play with his toys in one of the empty reposing rooms.
"My wife would bring him up there in his little pajamas," Thomas Scroggs said.
Holbrook said she couldn't remember if her father ever explained that their family was in the funeral home industry, and what that meant. "It's just how it was," she said.
Kevin Scroggs, now a licensed mortician himself, said he remembers some explanations, though.
"All my life, my father has said, 'The death angel knows no time clock, and when people need you, they need you now ... He always told me, 'You will not get rich in the funeral business, it's just not there, but it's a good life. It's a respectable life.' And everywhere I've gone, people have always told me, 'Your daddy is a good, honest man.' All my life, I've heard that, and all my life I've been proud knowing that."
The party to celebrate Scroggs' 50 years directing funerals will be held at the Thomas L. Scroggs Funeral Directors South Chapel, at 6362 S. Lee Street, in Morrow, on June 7, from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information, call Keisha Hhelping the bereavedolbrook at (770) 961-2828.