I am a 4th generation resident of East County. My great-great-grandfather, James Dainty, was a Welch coalminer who worked in the Back Diamond coalfields during the 1850s. He had in his possession a deed signed by Ulysses S. Grant granting him and his descendants an entire section of land adjoining the coalfields. The property was recently sold as part of a larger piece of land acquired by the park district. Unfortunately, Grandmother Dainty and her siblings were orphaned at a young age. A member of the family gave the six of them $5,000 for their share of the land that might have been worth 100 times more at the time of the sale.
We lived in Pittsburg when I was a child. Dad had serious heart problems and died when I was only six years old. A year later Mom married a soldier from Camp Stoneman. He was a good-looking guy but turned out to be a mean and abusive stepfather. After his military stint ended, he moved us back to his Tennessee home where we discovered that he was nothing more than a poor-white-trash sharecropper. He moved us continuously from one shack to another, none of them with plumbing or electricity. Following my solidly middle-class Pittsburg upbringing, that bottom-rung hillbilly life seemed particularly harsh.
Following three years of that miserable existence, my dysfunctional stepfather was imprisoned for armed robbery, so mom filed for divorce and took my younger sister Vonnie and me back to California on a Greyhound bus. We moved into Mom’s parents’ home in Brentwood and embraced our return to civilization with a sense of joy and relief.
My grandmother was Mable. Grandpa was Marshall “Mart” Benn, who worked for years on various Delta Island farms. He became Brentwood’s first water supervisor and would read and record data from each of the town’s water meters. Grandpa exerted a positive influence on my young life to counteract the senseless evil and nonsense of my horrible stepfather. Everyone loved Mart and grieved when he died at age 106.
Mom found work as a waitress at the iconic Brentwood Hotel. When I was in my teen years she married a local plumbing contractor named Paul Lindorf and moved us into the upstairs apartment above his office, which was located in the building next to the current Brentwood Muffler shop. Paul filled the role of father figure that had been missing from my life. He was a good man, with a no-nonsense attitude towards the rearing of children. He told me that I should learn to take care of myself; if I wasn’t working in his plumbing shop then he expected me to have a job somewhere else. I didn’t chafe at his attitude because I was a good worker, so people began to enlist my help in whatever odd jobs they had.
I attended Brentwood Elementary School and was president of the Liberty High Senior Class when I graduated in 1957.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Following graduation, I enrolled at DVC in Pleasant Hill and got a part time job mowing lawns and polishing cars at Brentwood’s Bartheld Funeral Home. I was a good worker and enjoyed being around those fine limousines and people dressed in nice suits. Almost from the beginning I developed an interest in the business and dropped out of DVC so I could work fulltime. The owner, Roy Bartheld, wasn’t able to hire a fulltime employee but gave me a strong reference for employment at the Russell and Gooch Funeral Home in Mill Valley.
As a full-time employee, my responsibilities expanded to other parts of the funeral business. The first time I entered the preparation room, I saw two bodies spread wide open on a slab during autopsy. The sight was grisly beyond anything shown in the most graphic Stephen King Hollywood horror movie and it upset me terribly. The licensed embalmer saw my distress and said, “What did you think you were getting involved in?” I had to practice putting mind over matter a number of times before I finally became mentally reconciled to that part of the business.
MOVING INTO THE MORTUARY INDUSTRY
After a year working for Russell and Gooch, I enrolled in the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. They continued to give me part-time work plus room and board. As my training progressed, I began to have more responsibilities and discovered that I enjoyed such things as designing and printing programs, managing funeral arrangements, and helping clients set up schedules and pick out caskets.
I learned to effectively relate to people as they were going through some of the worst passages in life’s journey. They responded to my authentic expressions of compassion and sympathy. They also appreciated my lack of pretension. I would freely admit that I was new to the business. If questions came up that I didn’t know how to deal with, I said that I would find the answers. And I always did so! For example, a family told me they wished to ship their mom’s body to an out-of-state destination. “I only know how to bury her locally,” I told them, “But I’ll find out the procedure for shipping her across state lines.” It turned out to be complicated, but when we met the very next day I had all the arrangements in place.
I was also successful at the business because of my sense of humor. Every healthy funeral includes both laughter and tears. Irma Bombeck said, “If we can laugh at it, we can live with it.” That’s true about any loss, I think. Humor is like opening a spigot to drain anxiety and pressure from desperate situations. Someone said that laughter is like changing a baby’s diaper. It doesn’t solve anything but makes the situation more tolerable for a while.
In 1966, I graduated at the top of my class with a degree in Funeral Directing and Embalming. I worked for another year for Russell and Gooch. In the meantime, Berthold’s business had grown to the point that it was now generating income sufficient to support a fulltime employee. I liked Mill Valley but Roy Bartheld attracted me back by holding out the prospect of one day taking over the business.
I felt ready to take over because I could see a number of ways in which the operation could be improved if I could be the one making the decisions. One day I approached Bartheld about buying him out. He said he would sell the funeral home to me if I could come up with a $20,000 down payment within a month. Bartheld was in his 70s at the time and could have retired long before. However, he wasn’t emotionally prepared to turn the business over to me and had actually made the offer on a whim, never imagining that I could come up with the cash. In those long-ago days and at that point in my career, he might as well have asked for $20 million. However, while going to school I had become friends with a fellow student named Gene Estribou. The two of us shared a love for fine automobiles and had kept in touch. Following graduation, he had married a wealthy woman, so when he learned of my situation Gene wrote me a personal check for the entire $20,000.
By the way, as an illustration of the “what goes around” principle, 20 years ago my friend Gene was in some desperate financial straits so I lent him $20,000.
Bartheld had a difficult time disguising his displeasure but in those days the proverb “A man’s word is his bond” was more than just a saying, so the process of handing over the business to me began. I became licensed with the state both as Funeral Director and Embalmer. Most funeral directors are not embalmers but I wanted the whole package. The test was difficult but I passed and became the official funeral director of what shortly became known as The Brentwood Funeral Home.
Bartheld gave me a lease agreement for the 839 First Street property. In 1989, ten years before the lease was to expire, I approached him with an offer to buy. We got into a stand-off, but when I described the situation After serving hundreds of people who had departed this planet, I have little fear and no doubt about what will happen when Death finally comes for me. to Jack Hernandez, a friend of mine who was a successful realtor, he said, “Let me go talk to the old fart” and ended up getting the property for $10,000 below asking price.
I became a husband and father the same year that I acquired the business. Donnalee Fisher came with a teenage daughter named Erin Meredith. In 2005 Donnallee passed away suddenly and I discovered that death is different for a mourner than for a funeral director. Even though our marriage was never a “match made in heaven,” I had a difficult time dealing with the transition.
A LIFE OF SERVICE
I was a Boy Scout when I was young so the values of community service and engagement with people were always important to me. I was familiar with the Brentwood Rotary Club from childhood. For years the club met in the Brentwood Hotel where Mom worked. She was their hostess and served them at their Monday lunch gatherings. Mom was so faithful at the job that, when I was 11 years old, the club gave her a special badge and made her an honorary member.
The Rotary Club of Brentwood had been started in 1948. Roy Bartheld was one of the founding members so in 1968, not long after my return to work for him, he took me to a meeting and I became a member. During the 70s I served terms as president and secretary. Fifty years later I am now the member with the most seniority. In fact, I am senior member by a dozen years because in 1980 I sponsored Brentwood’s former mayor, Bruce Ghiselli, and he now has the second most seniority.
By the time I joined, Mom and the Brentwood Hotel were both gone. There were about 20 of us and we would meet wherever we could find a place that would serve us lunch. The club has changed a lot in five decades. A big change happened in 1987 when women were admitted. I never had a problem with that change, but some of the older guys didn’t think there was a place for women in Rotary. It didn’t take long to get over that. Our past president was a woman and the one before her. Now we are about 80 members and are much more active in community and international service projects than in the early years.
I continue to do what I can to serve the community. I worked for a long time with the local museum project, joined the Historical Society in 1992, served two terms as president of the organization, and am still a member of the board.
I’m coming down to the final chapters of my story, I guess. Someone noted an obvious truth that no one of intelligence resents the inevitable. Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well used brings happy death.” I wouldn’t use the word “happy” but I agree with the sentiment. I worked hard, conducted myself with integrity, and did what I could to serve others.
After serving hundreds of people who had departed this planet, I have little fear and no doubt about what will happen when Death finally comes for me. However, I’m not planning on leaving the world anytime soon. I want to stick around and see what happens next.
Photos By Muhammad Saadiq