Customer profile: Rowe Funeral Home


Ken Spangler, owner of Rowe Funeral Home, is pictured in front of his John Wayne "shrine."  Ken and his team are always on call to "be flexible to help families during difficult times."

In typical under-stated Ken Spangler fashion, his response to the question—“Can you tell me about your business?”—was answered with: “I started out as a child.”  

Ken, the son of a Methodist minister, grew up in western Pennsylvania.  He chose to attend college at the University of Minnesota, at the time the “Harvard of embalming schools.”  It turns out Minnesota was the only four-year school in the country at the time, so the “Harvard of embalming schools” status was easily earned. 

“At the University of Minnesota, the funeral service degree program is connected with their medical school, so we were provided training that had a more robust educational component than other schools that provided only two-year degrees in this field.”

As the son of a Methodist minister, Ken was accustomed to moving.  His family moved every two to four years, so he attended three different grade schools and two high schools.  When he went to choose a career path that would provide more family stability, he bucked the family trend (his father, grandfather and two uncles were Methodist pastors) and opted to become a funeral home director.

“As a minister, my father did his share of dealing with death,” Ken continued.  “I recall sitting in the car while my dad visited a family, and back in 5th grade I decided I wanted to be a funeral director.  My parents couldn’t understand that, and neither could my school counselors.”

Ken did an internship with Bob Rowe and the Rowe Funeral Home in Grand Rapids the summer before his senior year at the University of Minnesota.  When Ken graduated in 1971, Bob offered him a job. 

“There was nothing pulling me back to New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and I liked the community of Grand Rapids,” said Ken.  “I worked for Bob Rowe until he decided to sell the business to Jeff Wohlrabe and me in 1984.”

Jeff and Ken were partners in the business until 2003 when Jeff retired. 

“The business had its accounts with American Bank until 1994,” Ken continued.  “We decided to remodel the facility, and our contractor did some comparison shopping for us.  They recommended we go with Grand Rapids State Bank; they had the best financing package.  They were also just across the street, which made things very handy.  Shen Adams was very helpful and made the loan process easy.”

During their construction period, area churches were very helpful by allowing the Rowe team to conduct visitations and funeral services in church facilities. 

There were always at least two funeral homes in town, Rowe and Libbey.  Ken and partner Jeff were frequently offered a price to sell the business to larger corporations, but the pair refused.  As Jeff struggled with his health, Ken began planning how to add more service—a crematorium, for example.  In 2004, after Ken acquired full ownership of the business, he proceeded with that plan.

“I had been considering this for five years,” said Ken. “I checked out zoning regulations, construction costs, and site options. Ultimately, I received permission to build right on my present site on First Avenue Northwest.”

Ken financed this project with help from Wayne Bruns, his loan officer at Grand Rapids State Bank.  Over the years, he considered spreading his banking business around, so when he needed a smaller loan to pay off some internal debt, he contacted a national corporate bank with an office in Grand Rapids.  Three months later, after no decision was forthcoming, he walked across the street to visit with Al Liestman, the new senior chief credit officer at GRSB. 

“We visited, and Al retrieved our file,” said Ken.  “He asked me for a copy of a document I didn’t have with me, and by the time I returned—all of 10 minutes—Al was ready with the approved loan.  That is a good example of why I like banking here.”

Rowe Funeral Home now employs four full-time funeral directors, three office personnel, and six part-time assistant funeral directors. 

They work with people of all religions, although Ken acknowledged that after he bought the business, there was a local legend that Rowe was the “Catholic” funeral home and Libbey Funeral Home was the “Protestant” funeral home.  Ken explains that 70% of his business was with non-Catholic families.  He recalls working with the new pastor of the Alliance Church who was very curious what a “Catholic” funeral home looked like.  After a quick tour of his facility, the pastor realized that the legend was myth.

“In my business, I have to be flexible to help families during difficult times,” Ken explained.  “The average funeral involves 100 person hours of activity. About three of those hours are spent with the body of the deceased person, while 97 hours are spent with the family and the many other entities we work with to make the funeral event come together.”

Funeral directors work with cemetery sextons, ministers, newspapers, insurance companies, banks, veterans’ services organizations and catering businesses.  Their activity is regulated by the Minnesota Department of Health, and licenses are required to perform services as a funeral director, to operate a funeral home and to operate a crematory.  In addition, funeral directors are obliged to participate in twelve hours of continuing education over a two-year period to keep their licenses current.

 “My partner, Dave Huso, has learned the business just as I did,” said Ken. “At some point I will retire and spend more time doing some of the things I do in my spare time, like visiting the Badlands in Medora, North Dakota, or my children in Grand Forks and Sydney, Nebraska.” 

Ken and his wife, Pam, have been active over the years in community organizations like the Itasca County Family YMCA.  “When you think about it, this is really a people business,” said Ken.  “I’ve enjoyed this work, which may seem strange to people who don’t understand what all we do.”

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