by Janet Schultz
Editor's Note: In this week's Sentinel we continue with our periodic feature -"Coming Home" - which profiles local residents who have returned to the area following time spent living in another locale. Readers with similar experiences are invited to contact the Sentinel at [email protected] to be considered for future features.
While many Western New Yorkers are leaving looking for employment and new business ventures outside the state, Michael Ross is returning for those same reasons.
"I didn't plan on ever coming back," said Ross. "I made that statement while I was in college and enjoying Chicago."
But after 30 years, he is returning. Along with him is his wife, Deborah, and daughters, Maison, 12 and Madisyn, 11.
Ross left Akron to attend college and play football at the University of Southern Illinois Carbondale.
"It was one of few schools that had mortuary science and football," he explained.
"I was comfortable there," said the Akron High School graduate. "There was so much to do there and Buffalo didn't compare to what they offered in Chicago.
"I made a life out there."
After college, Ross worked for a couple of funeral homes and after a while felt that working for other people wasn't like working in a family business. He wanted a change.
"I went to work for a friend who owned a car dealership and sold cars for a while."
While working there Ross tells a story of how he had an opportunity to go to a Chicago Bulls championship game. He had been working long hours and on a day off decided to go. His boss didn't want him to go and said as much.
Ross went to the game anyway. The friend he was attending the game with owned a funeral home and the conversation started with, "Are you happy?" At that moment, Ross wasn't and said so.
"He asked me to work for him and I turned him down because I couldn't see me working for him. Then he suggested I sell caskets."
Ross thought it over. He had sold cars, so why not caskets. He also had a girlfriend and was thinking about some lifestyle changes. His then girlfriend, now wife, thought is was a good idea.
"I researched several companies and started with a small region at a smaller pay. But I could work with it.
"I worked my way up and eventually worked for the two top casket companies.
"I did that for almost 15 years. About that time the Chinese, who don't use caskets in their country, began building and exporting them to the U.S."
While the caskets may not be the same quality as U.S. made, they were cheaper and, thus, more appealing to customers.
"The Chinese flooded the market," Ross explains.
"That was part of the downfall of the company," Ross explains. "I became unemployed and started thinking about the rest of my life."
One day his brother called him with an idea.
"He asked if I'd like to buy a funeral home," said Ross. "Akron was bustling and there was an opportunity to buy one there, but that didn't work out. Then he found out that Hamilton Clark in Wilson was for sale.
"My brother went over to see the owner and we made an offer. It was accepted and we had a funeral home," said Ross.
That was last summer. Ross traveled back to WNY to help his brother work on the funeral home but still maintained his residence in Chicago.
While talking to an acquaintance at a meeting in Chicago, Ross found out that Lockport's Gaul Funeral Home was up for sale.
"I called my brother and told him about it," says Ross. "We were a little ahead of our plan to purchase another funeral home but this was a good deal and one we didn't think we could pass up. We made an offer and now we own the second."
After three decades away from the area, Ross sees little change except for the fact that people now lock their doors.
The other thing is that people used to give directions by saying go down to so-and-so's house and turn, or go past this or that business. Now it's by miles.
But overall Ross says it's the same town and a town where everyone knows everyone.
"Someone once said that we were stuck in the '70s," he explained. "Maybe we are, but we like it that way."