Gladys Edwards Wallace, a West Side native who along with her late husband of 48 years, Vernon L. Wallace, helped build one of the most well-respected funeral homes in the Chicago area, died on Jan. 22. She was 84 years old.
The couple built Broadview Wallace Funeral Home in suburban Broadview through a partnership forged in mutual respect, trust and loyalty, mourners recalled in the days since Gladys Wallace’s death and during her funeral, held Feb. 6, at Freedom Baptist Church, 4541 Harrison St. in suburban Hillside.
During an interview with Sharon McDonald, which was played during a Facebook live-stream of her memorial, Gladys recalled her and her husband’s path to launching their well-respected business.
Born in Alberta, Ala., Gladys moved to the West Side with her family, when she was 7 years old.
“My father and I came to Chicago on the train, and my mother and brother came two months later,” she told McDonald. “I came [first] because my father and mother wanted me to get into school in September, and my brother was only 4 years old, so he came later.”
Gladys recalled a tight-knit, religious family woven in what at the time was the strong community fabric of the West Side. They attended Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson Blvd., where Gladys’ father, Rev. John W. Edwards, was an assistant pastor.
Both Gladys and Vernon attended Marshall Metropolitan High School in East Garfield Park. They were both proud alumni. They met in the early 1960s, introduced through a mutual friend, William Carothers, who would go on to become a powerful Chicago alderman.
“Bill Carothers was my husband’s best friend, and we were like family — Bill and his wife, Roberta,” Gladys recalled.
Gladys and Vernon married on June 28, 1964, at St. Joseph Baptist Church, Gladys recalled. She worked for the U.S. Postal Service in the human resources department while Vernon worked at the prominent House of Branch Funeral Home.
“They had three funeral homes [at the time],” Gladys recalled. “They offered us an apartment, rent-free, over [one of the funeral homes], but at that time I wasn’t involved [in the funeral home business] and I said I’d rather not.”
The couple met Danny K. Davis, the future congressman, in the late 1960s, Davis said at Gladys’ funeral on Saturday.
“I first met and got to know Gladys and Vernon, or Vernon and Gladys, when we were all part of the House of Branch Funeral Home. Vernon was running the House of Branch and, of course, Gladys and I both worked at the post office,” Congressman Davis said. “The Branches were leading civic and community, as well as business leaders in North Lawndale, where I lived.”
Davis said the reason he referred to the couple as “Vernon and Gladys or Gladys and Vernon” is because, “generally, whenever I saw one, I saw both.”
As funeral director at the House of Branch, Vernon was known for his disciplined handling of funeral proceedings — he kept them “punctual, smooth and, above all, dignified,” Maureen O’Donnell wrote in Vernon’s Chicago Sun-Times obituary.
Vernon, O’Donnell wrote, was a pioneer in the business, opening his own parlor to mortuary school graduates, providing pro-bono services for crime and fire victims, and burying “thousands of people, including many Chicago VIPs, in his 61-year career.”
One of those VIPs was Mahalia Jackson, whose funeral was attended by some 6,000 mourners at McCormick Place. The mourners included “Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.”
“It was just a huge, tremendous crowd,” Gladys told O’Donnell, adding that Vernon “was an artist at this, and excellent. Everything had to be correct for the family.”
In 1986, Gladys told McDonald, her husband went into partnership with West End Funeral Home and six years later, in 1992, they purchased what was at the time Broadview Funeral Home at 2020 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Broadview, their current location, renaming it Wallace Broadview Funeral Home.
“The reason [Vernon] did that was because he wanted to invest and save, so that it wouldn’t be any overhead,” Gladys told McDonald. “He was such an amazing person. We purchased that funeral home debt-free. We stayed up practically all night counting our money, so we were able to purchase it. I was so happy for him and he was overjoyed also.”
The same year when she and Vernon purchased the funeral home in Broadview, Gladys took a buyout from the U.S. Postal Service, with an eye on traveling the world and being a housewife.
“We got a half-year salary and all of our sick leave,” Gladys recalled. “I was a supervisor of benefits and I processed a lot of retirements. I had 30 years of service at the time, so I decided I would retire, too. I thought I was going to just be a housewife — a lady of leisure — and travel.
“But one of my mentors, a lady who lived across the hall from me, when [Vernon and I] first got married […] told my husband, ‘You should teach Gladys everything you know about the business,’ and she told me, ‘Gladys, you better learn everything about the business, because you don’t know what might happen in life.’ So, I decided to learn more about the business and my husband taught me everything I know about the business. He invested in me.”
The investment would pay off, with Gladys leveraging the education she obtained at Wilbur Wright Junior College, among other institutions of learning, to help her husband build one of the few Black-owned funeral homes in the west suburbs.
Rev. Marvin E. Wiley, the pastor of Rock of Ages Baptist Church in Maywood and the man who eulogized both Gladys and Vernon, said on Saturday that Wallace Funeral Home is “one of the most respected, not only funeral homes, but businesses in the community and in Illinois.”
Jamye Jeter Cameron, the 64th national president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association — the nation’s oldest and largest trade group of Blacks in the funeral industry — said on Saturday that Gladys was like a matriarch in the business.
“Our association is more like family than we are just association members,” Cameron said. “Mama Wallace, as I called her, called me one of her goddaughters.”
Cameron added that Gladys had many “goddaughters” and young women she mentored and molded less through words than actions, which were contoured by her distinct style.
“She was known to be a sharp dresser — always put together,” Cameron said.
After Vernon died in 2012, Gladys focused on securing his legacy by supporting her nephew, Rory Momon, the funeral home’s current director, whose own mortuary school education was funded by his uncle, according to the Sun-Times. Gladys also became even more comfortable in her role as the establishment’s matriarch.
“In Broadview, my husband and I had living quarters in the building and that made me more involved in the funeral business,” Gladys said. “I would be at the house many times by myself and would walk over the funeral home and the preparation room, where the bodies are laid up and viewed and buried, so I feel very good and comfortable.”
Gladys received numerous acknowledgments and distinctions for her long business career. She was former national president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, a recipient of the Business and Community Service Award and the M. Athalia Range Trailblazer Award — both given to her by the 100 Black Women of Funeral Service, Inc. She was an honorary life board member of the group, according to her obituary.
“I thought I’d be traveling and going all over the world, but I’m very content where I am and I want the business to go on and carry on the legacy that my husband left,” Gladys told McDonald. “When I pass on, the legend will still go on. I want to pass the torch to the next generation.”
In lieu of flowers, the family requested that mourners send scholarship donations to: 100 Black Women of Funeral Service, Inc. — Vernon & Gladys Wallace Scholarship, c/o Mrs. Elleanor Starks, P.O. Box 916404, Longwood, FL 32791.
Mourners can also send donations to: National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association Ladies Auxiliary, c/o Ms. Cynthia Betts (Treasurer), 124 W. Quailridge Rd., Oxford, NC 27565.