Sometimes for a reason and sometimes life changing.
And sometimes for the good.
Take Amy and Mike Tolle, longtime funeral directors and since January 2020, sole owners of Wilson-Little Funeral Homes in Purcell and Newcastle.
They were living in Weatherford and attending Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
It was just chance, really, that Amy happened to pick up a week-old newspaper that day she went to pay their rent.
A help wanted ad caught her attention. The job came with a residence. Rent-free.
She showed it to Mike who agreed it sounded like a good deal. He thought the job was something like managing an apartment complex.
Definitely better than nights operating a fork lift at his current job and attending classes in the day.
Well, Amy made the call and the next Mike knew, she called him and told him to get a haircut.
“We have a job interview in Clinton,” she said.
And then she dropped the bombshell. The ad was from a funeral home.
“I am not going to a funeral home,” Mike insisted.
But they went.
“The man (Troy Lee) was intense,” Mike recalled.
After an interview lasting 3-1/2 hours, Lee hired the Tolles.
And just like that their lives changed forever.
Mike, who took psychology classes and wanted to be a football coach, was an apprentice in a funeral home. Amy worked in the office and helped with evening visitations.
When they left Clinton, they moved to Oklahoma City. Mike worked for Vondel Smith Mortuary while earning his degree in funeral service at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Eventually they ended up in Altus where another of those “accidents” was about to happen.
Amy was pregnant with their third child and the Tolles attended church with Tim Wilson’s sister.
The sister helped plan a baby shower for Amy and mentioned to Amy that her brother owned a funeral home in Purcell.
She introduced them in a phone call.
Mike says it’s ironic, really, that he’d never heard of Tim Wilson, although Wilson had also trained under Troy Lee.
“We weren’t looking to relocate,” Mike said.
But on July 15, 2006, Amy, Mike and their three daughters moved to Purcell. The oldest girl was in fourth grade, the middle in kindergarten and the baby was 9 days old.
In the years since, Purcell has become home.
Their two oldest girls graduated from Purcell High School and the youngest, Karlee, is a freshman there.
All three have grown up around the funeral home, helping whenever needed.
The oldest, Kylie, is a registered nurse working in the emergency room at the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center in Ada.
The middle girl, Madisyn, will graduate in May with an associate’s degree in business from Murray State College.
She is the one most likely to follow her folks in the funeral business.
“She’s asking a lot of questions,” Mike said.
Mike and Amy grew up at Watonga. They attended the same church; their mothers both taught Sunday School.
After high school, Mike left Watonga and toured with a country band, Bad Attitude.
He played bass and sang back up. The band even recorded an album in Nashville.
“It was a fun and exciting life,” he said.
Mike returned to Watonga to plan a memorial service for the band’s drummer and that’s when he asked Amy for a date.
They’ve been married 25 years – the same length of time they have been in the funeral home business.
“It’s very rewarding,” Mike said.
The Tolles have learned the true meaning of 24/7 and always being on call.
They take two vehicles to any activity or event away from the funeral home.
“There are times that phone will ring and you just have to check yourself,” Mike said.
There have been a lot of missed birthday celebrations and family outings. Demands on time that can’t be put off.
“We have a really, really good and dedicated staff,” Mike said.
Mike never did coach a football team, but he did coach softball – a game he knew next to nothing about – for 18 years, starting when they signed Kylie up for T-ball.
No longer in a band, he sings at funerals “all the time.”
He’s the embalmer, make-up artist, funeral director, friend and confidant.
Amy, ever at his side, helps families maneuver all the paperwork arising from a death. And sometimes, she styles the deceased’s hair.
It is a mom and pop business in every sense.
And Mike and Amy are the exception to one unfortunate fact of life in the funeral industry.
“Burnout is high,” Mike said, “for a lot of reasons.”
In fact, many funeral directors bow out after three to five years.
“And here we are 25 years later,” he said.
The Tolles entered 2020 with “all kinds of ideas, hopes and dreams.”
On Jan. 1, 2020, they bought the funeral home and three months later, their world – and everyone else’s – flipped upside down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It takes what you think you know and changes everything,” Mike said.
Mike isn’t especially tech savvy – the funeral home didn’t have Facebook until November 2019 – and he recalled another of those accidents at one of the first funerals in the pandemic lock down in March 2020.
The widow came up to him and asked if he could broadcast the service. It was five minutes before the funeral was to start.
Mike was flummoxed, but one of his assistants took a cell phone and placed it on a stand in the chapel.
And just like that the service was live-streamed.
Today, Mike sees technology as a link; Amy calls it a bridge.
But really, it’s all about connections.
By late October, Mike and Amy were comfortable enough with technology to livestream a community trick-or-treat event behind the funeral home on Halloween.
In December, they put together an old-fashioned Christmas program on social media.
Pre-planning a funeral now includes an option to leave a recorded video message.
When that time comes, mourners can access the recorded video message by scanning a code on the funeral card with their cell phone.
It’s a different world in 2021. But legacy is something highly prized by Amy and Mike.
It’s one reason they’ve left the name of the funeral home unchanged.
And in the interests of preserving that legacy, they’ve established a small mortuary museum upstairs at the funeral home.
Among the many artifacts are bound records of every funeral conducted by the funeral home since the 1880s.