Julia Roberta March, a retired funeral director who with her husband founded what became one of the state's largest independent funeral businesses, died of cancer Tuesday at her daughter's Owings Mills home. She was 82 and lived in Towson.
She and her husband, William C. March, began their enterprise in 1957. Mr. March drove a hearse and was an embalmer. Mrs. March, as a hostess, greeted families in what had been a living room of the East North Avenue rowhouse where they lived on upper floors. She later involved her four children in the business, which handles 2,000 burials a year.
"It was always a family whose members worked together, and Roberta was its matriarch," said Doretha F. Hector, who owns the Phillips Funeral Home in West Baltimore. "She was a woman I looked up to and respected. She would say, `Hold your head up and look to the stars.'"
Born Julia Roberta Hayes in Atlantic City, N.J., she spent her childhood on Greenmount Avenue. Family members said that she made a name for herself as a St. Francis Xavier Drum and Bugle Corps drum majorette marching along East Baltimore streets.
Mrs. March quit Dunbar High School to help support her family and later graduated from Frederick Douglass High School's evening program. Years later, she and her husband created a charitable foundation that has awarded 48 four-year college scholarships to graduates of Douglass and Dunbar high schools.
She was married in 1943 and during World War II worked at Glenn L. Martin Co. as a riveter assembling military aircraft. After the war, her husband used his GI benefits to attend mortuary school. He held down two jobs, one with the post office and the other as a funeral director.
They vowed to work together in the funeral business as a means of providing for their children's college education.
Mrs. March became a funeral director and handled the funeral business during the day, while her husband slept after working a night shift at the downtown post office. She officiated at services, was often attired in black and was rarely seen in her professional duties without a stylish hat.
For many years, she sat in the front passenger seat of a March limousine alongside a driver as they accompanied family members to cemeteries.
Family members said that in the 1950s, many of the March burials were for impoverished veterans and welfare recipients who were shunned by other funeral establishments.
"She kept everything in balance," said her son Erich W. March of Baltimore. "She was the voice of reason and pushed her children to expand the business."
After her four children completed their schooling, the March family joined in a business that they steadily expanded.
They constructed a larger, free-standing North Avenue funeral complex and built another on Wabash Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. The family also owns the 154-acre King Memorial Park in Woodlawn and has a mortuary establishment in Richmond, Va.
"She was an astute professional," said Juanita Morton, a past president of the National Ladies Auxiliary of the Funeral Directors and Morticians Association. "When she spoke, she brought a lot of wisdom."
Mrs. March retired in 2000. Her husband died in 2002.
She was the past chairwoman of the Small Business Steering Committee of the United Negro College Fund and belonged to a number of professional associations, including the Funeral Directors and Morticians Association of Maryland. In 2001, the Determined Biblical and Theological Institute of Baltimore honored her with a doctorate of humane letters.
A Roman Catholic, she was a longtime member and Eucharistic minister at St. Ann's Church. She was a past Grand Lady of the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary and held the title of Faithful Captain of Anna E. Davage Ladies of Grace of the Knights of Peter Claver.
She is survived by another son, Victor C. March Sr. of Towson; two daughters, Cynthia March Malloy of Richmond, Va., and Annette March Grier of Owings Mills; a sister, Shirley Hargrove of Pikesville; 13 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Ann's, Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street, preceded by a 10 a.m. wake.
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