March Funeral Homes' founder dies at age 79

William March conquered barriers to build business

August 03, 2002|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

William C. March, founder of March Funeral Homes, one of the largest African-American-owned funeral service companies in the country, died yesterday of complications from Parkinson's disease at his home in Towson. He was 79.

Mr. March got the idea to become an undertaker from a man he met in a pool hall and launched the family-owned funeral business in 1957 from the living room of his rowhouse at 928 E. North Ave., which the family still owns. Initially, he used a 1939 hearse, which he once said "looked like a stagecoach coming down the street."

In the beginning of the fledging enterprise, the majority of his clients were indigent veterans and welfare cases, eventually earning March a reputation as "the welfare undertaker."

Business grew steadily, and by 1978, Mr. March constructed a sprawling funeral home in the 1100 block of E. North Ave. between Ensor and Aisquith streets. Seven years later, he built a second facility in West Baltimore in the 4300 block of Wabash Ave. He also founded King Memorial Park, a cemetery catering to the African-American community in Baltimore County, which, at 154 acres, is the largest black-owned cemetery in the country, according to March Funeral Homes.

"I never wanted to be rich," Mr. March, the father of four, said in a 1984 Sunday Sun Magazine profile. "Just wanted to pay my bills and educate my kids."

At the time, his funeral business was valued at $5 million. Today, it is worth an estimated $25 million, said Mr. March's son, Erich W. March, vice president and general manager of the enterprise.

Along the way, Mr. March received numerous awards and recognition as a leader in the funeral industry for his entrepreneurial savvy and commitment to providing services for everyone -- regardless of their financial situation.

"Mr. March is one of the role models for African-American entrepreneurs in this city," the Rev. Walter S. Thomas, pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church, said yesterday. "He was a man of the community. There wasn't a church that he didn't help. There wasn't a person he didn't rescue. He buried more people with no money," Mr. Thomas said, his voice trailing off. "He was that kind of a person."

"The industry has lost a legend," said Vaughn C. Greene, 39, founder of Vaughn C. Greene Funeral Services, who recalled meeting Mr. March when he was 16. "He literally changed the face of the funeral industry.

"He talked to me. He encouraged me, and I wasn't even a member of his staff. He planted seeds in me as young person that are germinating right now."

Business obstacles

But building his enterprise wasn't easy. Even as his business grew steadily in the 1970s, Mr. March had difficulty persuading loan officers to advance him money and believed he was often rejected because of his race. Financing for the East North Avenue funeral home came from the Small Business Administration, an African-American savings and loan association and $150,000 of his own money.

Knowing firsthand the importance of access to capital for small-business development, Mr. March helped finance and co-found the Harbor Bank of Maryland, the city's first minority-owned commercial bank.

The bank controls more than $200 million in assets and is listed among Black Enterprise Magazine's top-performing minority-controlled financial institutions.

A generous and civic-minded man, Mr. March also helped restore Orchard Street Church, a landmark that sheltered slaves as they made their way to freedom along the Underground Railroad. In 1982, Mr. March established the Thelma March Scholarship Foundation in honor of his sister, who died in a fire during her first year of college in 1941. The scholarships are for college-bound students from Dunbar and Douglass high schools, which he attended.

Born in Salisbury, N.C., and raised in Baltimore, Mr. March was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He recently received a commendation and a medal from France for participating in the Normandy invasion.

He dreamed of becoming an architect in 1946 after a stint in the Army. But after talking with a man in a pool hall about becoming an undertaker, he headed for New York to study at the American Academy of Mortuary Science. (The man who gave him the idea abandoned the notion.)

After he graduated, no one would hire him to provide the apprenticeship required to obtain a funeral director's license. At the time, he recalled in 1984, funeral directors hired only relatives.

He eventually got an apprenticeship but was required to serve four years without pay instead of two. To support his family, he took a night job at a post office.

In 1955, after getting his license, he joined an established black funeral director who acted as his mentor.

`A very humble man'

"My father had an incredible life," said Erich March. "He was a very humble man and achieved so much. He really wasn't comfortable with attention. He was always being honored and given so many accolades, but he was just a humble person and just wanted to help somebody."

Funeral services are pending.

Mr. March also is survived by his business partner and wife of 59 years, Julia Roberta March of Towson; son Victor C. March Sr. of Baltimore; daughters Cynthia March-Malloy of Tappahanee, Va., and Annette March-Grier of Baltimore; 13 grandchildren; a brother, Edward March of Baltimore; and a sister, Doris Wright of Baltimore.

The family requests that donations be made to the Thelma March Scholarship Foundation, 5819 York Road, Baltimore 21212.

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