Funeral Director To Be Honored
At Annual Chamber Gala May 2
By JIM KEVLIN • Hometown Oneonta & The Freeman’s Journal
ONEONTA – Everybody knows Les Grummons.
“I always liked to be involved,” said the Oneonta funeral director who is the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce’s Eugene A. Bettiol Jr. Distinguished Citizen of the Year. “I was always that way.”
He will be honored Thursday, May 2, at the chamber’s annual Gala & Celebration of Business in Foothills Atrium.
Interviewed the other day at the Lester R. Grummons Funeral Home, 14 Grand Ave., he had just arrived back from the weekly Rotary Club meeting at the Elks Club.
Rotary – and the Elks: he’s a lifetime member – is just the start of it. He’s a former Jaycee, a Moose, an Eagle and a member of the Knights of Columbus, third and fourth degree, the fourth adding the dimension of promoting patriotism.
Appropriately, in honor of his father, also Lester, a World War II veteran, the son – not a veteran himself – has been active for years in the Sons of the Legion, an American Legion adjunct, rising to state commander.
In his profession, he has always been a member of the New York State Funeral Directors Association, elected president in the early 1980s.
That not all: He’s served on the boards of Catskill Area Hospice & Palliative Care (10 years; three as chair), Catholic Charities, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
He served as alderman on Oneonta’s Common Council for eight years.
And he plays that most social of sports: golf.
How did all this civic commitment happen? “You get involved in things. After a while, people just come to you. I never said no.”
Chamber President Barbara Ann Heegan, who served on the Special Project Committee that made this year’s selections, said: “He contributes to the community in such an impactful way,” adding, “He thoroughly enjoys the people of the community.“
Grummons’ networking wasn’t all formal. John Brooks remembers Les coming up to the take-out counter at Brooks BBQ; both owned Escalades, and they would josh each other about the relative benefits of their particular models. That jousting grew into a golfing friendship that continues today.
Now 75, Les Grummons was raised in Owego and worked for a funeral home for a year, beginning when he was 18, while he was an O-R technician at the Ideal Hospital in Endicott. There, he also met his future wife, Sharon, a nurse.
He attended Broome Community College and the Simmons School of Mortuary Technology in Syracuse, but was initially sidetracked from his eventual profession, working 1966-70 as an accountant at IBM in Owego.
Still, “I really liked the funeral business,” he said. In 1970 he learned of an opportunity, and bought Oneonta’s Rothery-Murphy Funeral Home at 14 Grand. During a few years of transition, it was the Murphy-Grummons Funeral Home before evolving into the Lester R. Grummons Funeral Home.
Previously, Grummons’ community involvement was limited to serving on the Vestal Volunteer Fire Department, but – as the proprietor of a business – he quickly immersed himself in the City of the Hills’ civic and social life.
That was fully evident by 1974, when the local Jaycees – the Junior Chamber of Commerce – named him Distinguished Citizen of the Year.
On the job, he sought to excel, “to go to the next level and offer something that makes a family’s burden of sorrow a little bit easier.”
But his innovations extended beyond that.
Interstates were still under construction, vehicular traffic could be slow, and early on he collaborated with attorney Joe Pondolfino in founding Aero Coach Inc., flying a Cessna 206 out of F&F airport, Emmons, to serve the needs of the funeral sector for prompt delivery.
Traditionally, funeral home staff wore black; never at Grummons. In the early years, he and his assistants wore green suits, available at Bresee’s or Fashion Clothes in the nearby downtown.
For some years, they shifted to powder-blue suits and patent leather shoes.
At base, though, the job was comforting people “at the worst time of their lives. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. You have to be sensitive; you have to be a good listener,” he said.
“If they hug you going out the door, you know you did a good job.”
Living in the comfortable second- and three-floor accommodations at 14 Grand, Les was always close to work – too close, his wife Sharon concluded.
Sharon, who passed away in 2004 at age 62, talked him into buying a summer home on Goodyear Lake, where the couple moved each summer with now-grown daughters Mary and Ann and son Mike. Les is still back and forth.
Grummons recalled highpoints of his other incarnations:
- On Common Council, visiting Matthews Bus in Dansville, Livingston County, with fellow Alderman Betty Niles, identifying the first buses for what grew into today’s OPT, Oneonta Public Transit. He fondly recalls John Insetta, who advanced from another City Hall job to OPT director, and Joe Bernier, ace Community Development director.
- He brought young people into the business, notably a 15-year-old from East Meredith who is now proprietor of Walter J. Kent Funeral Home in Elmira. While Kent worked for him, Grummons became state Funeral Directors’ Association president, so Kent was particularly proud to succeed his mentor as NYSFDA president in 2016-17. “When I graduated from high school,” Kent remembered, “he gave me a present: a green suit.”
- In his Sons of the Legion role, Les began collaborating with Skip Beijen, the Oneonta Vets’ Club commander, 20 years ago now to energize Memorial Day ceremonies in Neahwa Park, recruiting the Leatherstocking District Pipe Band from Hobart and building the event from there.
Les’ networking didn’t just work for his own business, said Dan Ayres. When he joined Catskill Area Hospice as executive director, Ayres’ board chair was Grummons, low-key, focused on developing the strength of committees and organizing the agenda to keep board meetings to one hour.
Grummons recruited Connie Yastremski of Cooperstown, Bassett’s retired chief nurse, to the Hospice board, which she now chairs. He also brought in retired banker and Excelsior College CFO John Pontius and Sue Van Cott, corporate secretary of her family company, Unalam.
A few years ago, Dignity Memorials, which operates funeral homes nationally, bought Grummons Funeral Home, and Les has stayed on as consultant, but “a consultant who is actually consulted,” he said. Ryan Walsh holds the title of funeral director.
Dignity continues to bring in new business methods that impress the former owner. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, the company hosted a pre-planning seminar in Brooks’ meeting pavilion – and democratically, “names picked by random from the phone book.”
And Walsh has a video program that helps walk bereaved families through the offerings.
Les Grummons sits in on those, although he still strives to offer the same comforts he has for decades. “I like the good old-fashion way of doing things,” he said, nodding toward an armchair, “sitting here and talking to people.”