Tucson family's mortuary biz spans 3 generations

By Kimberly Matas

Arizona Daily Star

Published: Monday, July 4 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

TUCSON, Ariz. — Arthur J. Adair's entrÉe into the undertaking business happened by chance when he started working at his uncle's funeral parlor in 1938.

It turned into an opportunity for future Adairs.

Arthur's eldest son, Ron, had a thorough understanding of the inner workings at his family's mortuary by the time he was in elementary school and went on to become a licensed funeral director and president of Adair Funeral Homes. Eventually Ron was joined in the enterprise by his younger brother and two sisters.

Now, 54 years after the founding of the business, a third generation has arrived. Three of Arthur Adair's grandchildren are working in facets of the family businesses — one just finished mortuary school, one starts in the fall and another plans to follow soon.

Adair, which has five locations in Tucson, Catalina and Nogales, is one of the few funeral businesses in Arizona training a third generation, said Alicia Short, executive director of the Arizona Funeral, Cemetery & Cremation Association in Mesa.

Tucson Mortuary on South Stone Avenue has a fourth-generation Carrillo working in the family business. It was founded in 1914, giving the family a 42-year head start on the Adairs.

Fewer than 30 percent of family funeral businesses survive into the third generation of family ownership, according to the Family Business Institute, a Raleigh, N.C.-based advisory firm. Earlier this year an established, family-owned Tucson mortuary sold to a Florida-based corporation because there were no heirs to take over the business. Though privately owned funeral homes are still the majority, corporations and conglomerates are slowly moving into the market.

Arthur Adair, an Idaho farm boy, came west with two cousins in 1938 to visit relatives in Tucson. His cousins went home. Adair, then 19, stayed to work for his uncle, who owned Tiedje Funeral Home, then at 737 N. Sixth Ave. His vacation became a vocation.

He married Martha Kavanaugh in 1948, and after a stint in the Marines during World War II, schooling at a California mortuary college and more than a decade working in the funeral industry in Tucson, he opened his own mortuary. The original Adair Funeral Home opened Feb. 16, 1957, and remains in operation today.

When Arthur died in 1973, Martha took over the company. All four Adair children worked in the family business.

At 85, Martha still takes an active interest in the business and she is a fixture at the office, but day-to-day operations are overseen by her sons, Ron and Hank Adair.

Ron, the eldest son, began working at the family funeral home when he was 7, said his mother. Decades before the industry was so stringently regulated, the local coroner, an Adair family friend, regularly allowed young Ron to observe him as he worked.

"He stood on a bucket and watched," Martha said.

Hank Adair said he was never teased, when he was a boy, for being the son of a mortician. Quite the contrary.

"All my friends found it fascinating," he said. "I think, for all of us, our friends were intrigued."

Now three of Arthur and Martha's grandchildren are working for the family.

"I'm just so happy the grandchildren, on their own, have made the decision" to join the family business, said Martha Adair. "They are going to be so terribly important with all the technology. They understand it, and that's going to be the future of the industry.

"Those who have been successful are those who have changed with the times," she said. "You don't want to still be typing death certificates when they can be updated online."

The next generation's interest also will keep the business in the family.

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