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WF BoydMythbuster: William F. Boyd

Funeral director, community activist

Date of interview: January 19, 2009

While snow was falling outside, and his wife Mary listened and watched NBC's broadcast of and commentary on the activities leading up to President Barak Obama's history-making inauguration the next day, 93-year-old family head, civic leader and funeral director William "Bill" Boyd shared his thoughts about growing up Black in Depression-era Cleveland, the importance of giving back to your community, and what he thinks we should all be doing "and you can't just start in your 60s" to remain active, vibrant and engaged with life.

You are a native Clevelander, born and raised here. Tell me about your early years: when you were born; what you were like as a kid, what your hobbies and pastimes were; where you went to school.

I was born on February 7 th , 1915. When I was born I had an older sister [Lucille, who became a social worker and teacher], and we lived on East 38 th Street, but we moved [first to E. 43 rd Street and then to East 81 st Street ]. When we moved to East 81 st Street, I went to Quincy Elementary School and Central High. Then, in 1925 my mother and father moved to Drexel Avenue [in the Glenville area] and I transferred to Patrick Henry Junior High.

Sports appealed to me as I was coming up. And I played the violin at Patrick Henry and Glenville High School. I was in the orchestra and in those years, there were city-wide competitions. We won in 1932, and played at Severance Hall.

I graduated from Glenville in 1933. It was a highly recognized and successful high school. "Mom" [his wife, Mrs. Mary Webster Boyd] was in Howard Metzenbaum's class, but there were few Blacks attending the school. For me, I always felt somewhat like an outsider looking in...It wasn't until I started taking classes at Central High School's Post Graduate School — I was taking courses that were going to be necessary for the profession I'd chosen — that I began to identify with myself, my heritage. There, more than half the students were members of my race.

Mother [Cora] and father [Elmer Francis] took my sister and me to church every Sunday,,,Most of my 'socialization' was through the church...What I learned there has lingered with me because the bonds I made there helped shape my life.

Growing up, I really had had no connection with my father's business. It was not until after high school that I realized the future of the family business was going to depend on me.

How did you train for that?

I went to the Cleveland School of Embalming on Prospect just below E. 40 th Street and graduated in 1938. There were about 100 people in my class — coming from all over Ohio — and I was vice president of the class. Most were around my age and most were going into a family business.

And I did an apprenticeship with my father. At that time, to be a funeral director, you had to be a high school graduate, have gone to embalming school and you had to do a two-year apprenticeship. Then you were eligible to take the exam to become a qualified funeral director.

You came of age at the height of the Depression. How do you think that shaped you, contributed to who you are today?

It was a vital factor in who I am today. The Depression helped me make my decision about going into the business with my father. And when I started working with my dad, I had the opportunity to be exposed to an environment I'd never been exposed to. Not just the conditions my father was dealing with but also the conditions that the Black community and the whole city were dealing with. That's when I realized the racial conditions that prevailed at that time, how difficult things really were. What I was seeing and experiencing caused me to realize that I had to make good use of my life and talents. And what I was seeing gave me added strength and made me more determined to make the business successful.

But it wasn't just about the business. Working with all these people from the community, I saw their suffering and hardships. That made me realize the importance of humanity. And the importance of a service that required so much of you but was so necessary.

It also made me realize that if it wasn't for the help of God, I could be in that same situation.

As you were growing up, who were the people who had the biggest influences on you, on who you are and what you have become today?

I'd say the most important one was my dad. He had the courage to start a business in this town in 1905. [Chuckles] I've often wondered why he made that decision. As I came up, and became closer to him — especially after I became a part of the business — I realized how good he was at all the things he was doing. He was a good businessman. He was a good neighbor. He was a responsible person and always impressed me as being a good Christian. He set good examples, not just for me, but for the people he was serving.

Seeing how he worked, how he did things, that made me more committed to the business, to being responsible, to doing things right.

And, I'd have to say members of Mary's family, too. They were a big influence on me, especially when it came to purchasing our second funeral home [in 1972].

And also, the members of Dad's church. Through the years they have been true friends, and their friendships gave me insights and confidence to go forward. And I'm not talking only about the business.

And speaking of "the business," you are part of a dynasty that continues to run one of Ohio 's oldest family-run businesses, E. F. Boyd & Son. When, and why, did you join the business as "Son."?

My father graduated from Clark's College of Embalming in Cincinnati, and stared the business in 1905. [Chuckles] I've often wondered why he started it in Cleveland. For a long time, it was my mother and father who ran the business, and it was E. F. Boyd Funeral Home. When I began my two year apprenticeship with my father and joined the business in 1938, that's when the name changed to E. F. Boyd and Son.

But today it's more than that. Our son, Pepper [William F. Jr.] attended the University of Pittsburg's Mortuary Science School, and came into the business with me in 1965 — so it was back to being Boyd and Son. Then our youngest daughter, Marcella, came out of high school and got her funeral director's license and joined the business. Then Marina came back to Cleveland and became our bookkeeper. Then "Mom," came in. She got her funeral director's license in 1983. Now two granddaughters are with the business, too.

When WWII started, did you join the military?

I was deferred. Mary and I had been keeping company after we both graduated from high school. We married in 1939, and we went to war in December of 1941. By then, we had a child, Pepper, and I was in a business that was deemed necessary for the well-being of the community. I was classified as 3A.

How and when did you meet your wife, Mary (nee Webster)?

She was a friend of my sister, Lucille. We began to keep company, after we'd both finished high school. When we married, her mother and father welcomed us to live with them because at the time I was making $15 a week as an apprentice. We lived with them on 98 th St off East Blvd. till we bought our first home in 1949.

From an early age, you were a successful businessman and an active leader in improving conditions in both the African American and Greater Cleveland communities. What led you to become so active in community affairs?

Actually, one complements and supplements the other.

I have always felt that it is a person's responsibility to become involved, so I felt I owed it to myself — it was something I had to do — and to others to serve beyond just doing a good job in the business I was in. There were so many situations, so many things that were changing, so many things that needed addressing in the lives of the people and city that I felt a moral obligation to become part of the efforts to improve things.

Being associated with the various groups I've been involved in helped me by giving me a way to do things. And the business was always a support in being able to do things, but there was always the obligation to serve people beyond what I could and was compelled to do through my profession.

That was one of the reasons that I became a member of the Cleveland Board of Education. I felt I owed it to the community.

In 1963, you were elected to the Cleveland School Board and served two terms on the Board through one of the most turbulent times in Cleveland 's history.

[Chuckles] Yes, that was a turbulent, challenging time for Cleveland.

I wasn't the first Black person on the board. That was Mary Martin, and there were others. When I went on the board, I knew I was building an image for others to look to. I knew things were going to be hostile. And I knew that I would have to be an emissary to facilitate contacts with groups that we [were going to need to communicate with.

One of the first things that happened when I became a board member was a sit-in, staged at the Board of Education building. Things like that happened all the time because there were major racial problems. When Paul Briggs became superintendent, he was a real help to the school system, and me.

Through all this I was frustrated, but I was also dedicated. I served two full terms [and was vice president of the board in 1965 and 1966], but I didn't realize how "hot" the situation was until I got off the board.

At 93 you continue active participation in many community organizations. If you had to pick a community endeavor to be remembered for, which one would it be?

I can't really say just one. I've always felt that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People fostered programs that represented its members in such a fashion that they could look forward and that it represented the best aspirations of the community. I was an active member for years, and was on the board and was chair of the first NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner. That was in 1959 and they've been holding them annually ever since. Because I felt it would be a conflict of interest, during the time I was on the Board of Education, I resigned my connection with the organization.

And also the funeral directors associations. I was very active locally, statewide and nationally and — having served as president of both the local and state organization — feel I played a vital part in both.

And I'm proud of the fact that I was asked to be a board trustee for my church, Antioch Baptist Church. I've been a member for 70 years and served on that board for many years. [Chuckles] It was like being a shepherd, watching over the flock, watching over the funds.

And I'm proud of the years I spent with the Cleveland Business and Professional's Alliance. The group organized in the early 1940s and I served on the board of directors.

And I'm proud of the fact that the Boyd family was named Family of the Year by the Urban League [in 1978] though most of my community activities weren't with them.

For your whole life, you have been involved in a thriving business, in addressing the problems of the community, in your church, in professional organizations. Over the years, what were you doing to balance work and volunteering and the rest of your life?

[Chuckles] I have to admit, not that much. Mary was a strong bulwark in my life and the care and rearing of the children was all hers. That allowed me to build the business, to make the kind of contacts in the community that were needed to build the business and to be able to work to improve things in the community...In some ways, I think what I did was to repeat what my father did, follow in his footsteps.

Now I've realized that while it's wonderful building a business, you also need to set up time — quality time — for the growth of your family.

At 93, you are physically fit and trim. What are you doing to stay in such good shape?

I stay active. I make sure I move around as much as possible, and I try to get out each day. My sense of balance is deteriorating, so when I'm walking, I use a cane. And I'm using hand weights here in the apartment. And they have a fitness room here at the apartment building, so I go down there and use the stationary bicycle. I used to use a treadmill, but when the balance problems started I switched to the bicycle.

I see the doctor regularly and I'm careful about taking my prescription medications. In fact, the doctor called just the other day about adjusting the dosage for one of them.

We have always paid attention to what we were eating, especially how much fat we were eating. Mary has always been in charge of that — careful about that — so we have always eaten well.

As far as supplements go, we both take vitamin C tablets, but nothing beyond that.

Mary's father was a chiropractor — and they have a very holistic approach to health care that looks at everything — so we have always been aware and careful about what we should be doing to take care of ourselves.

If you could give people the "Bill Boyd rules" for successful aging, what would they be?

Eat right. But you can't start that when you are 60, it has to be something you are doing daily. And from a young age.

Another would be to get enough sleep. You need at least 8 hours a day. And again, you shouldn't be starting that when you are in your 60s, you have to be doing it at that younger age.

Another is to stay engaged. I've always shunned the idea of retirement. For me, it's a privilege to do what we [the Boyd family] do, so I make an effort to remain active in the business because it's more than just a business, it's a way to give back to the community, too.

I still have an active funeral director's license. Just last week, I happened to be there at the funeral home on Emory Road when a family was dealing with a loss. I'd known that family for years, and when they had the service, I knew I was going to be there.

William Boyd Sr. passed away on December 7, 2014 at age 99. Read the tribute in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.