Purdue HHS alumna celebrates lives well lived through family’s 105-year-old mortuary

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa, rhoffa@purdue.edu

J.W. Woodward Funeral Home

J.W. Woodward Funeral Home Inc. is the oldest African American-owned business in Spartanburg, South Carolina, having been in Purdue HHS alumna Kay Woodward’s family for 105 years. Photo provided

Kay Woodward

Kay WoodwardPhoto Provided

Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences alumna Kay Woodward was never pressured to enter her family’s business, J.W. Woodward Funeral Home Inc. It’s a passion for helping families through some of their lowest times that has driven her to continue her father’s legacy and help the oldest African American-owned business in Spartanburg, South Carolina, thrive as it approaches 106 years of service.

“It has been a way of life,” Woodward said. “Even when I was a college professor, I still helped on weekends. If we didn’t have official college functions on weekends, I would assist with funerals.”

Woodward earned her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and PhD from Purdue’s Department of Psychological Sciences, and she credits her guidance counselor at Spartanburg High School, Lillian Grant, with connecting her to the University. At Purdue, Woodward did a little bit of everything, including serving as a residence hall counselor, joining Delta Sigma Theta sorority, participating as a pep girl for Purdue’s athletics teams and tutoring players on the men’s basketball team. Woodward was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, one of the nation’s most prestigious academic honor societies, as an undergraduate at Purdue.

“I often think that my whole life was shaped by Purdue,” Woodward said.

Developing an interest in one of her psychology classes at Spartanburg High School, her goal was to become a psychology professor, and after she graduated from Purdue, Woodward did exactly that. She became the first professor of color at Converse College — now Converse University — in Spartanburg. Today, she serves on the university’s board of trustees.

Woodward shifted away from teaching at Converse and began working full-time at the funeral home in 1985, after one of its key staff members passed away. She had previously earned her funeral director’s license, and she worked under her father’s leadership at J.W. Woodward Funeral Home for 10 years.

“I can remember the time when my title was ‘Mr. Woodward’s daughter’ — that was my position,” Woodward said. “He coached me along, and I do feel like that kind of coaching is important. My parents never made me feel like I had to step into the business. I wanted to step into the business.”

Woodward’s grandfather started the funeral home in 1916 to provide a mortuary for citizens of color, and Woodward’s father offered additional services to citizens of color that were not otherwise available to them at the time. While the mortuary now serves a more diverse population than it originally started out serving, under Woodward’s leadership, the mortuary has continued to put community needs first and support families during hard times.

“(My father) was a good teacher, and I think that having an opportunity to work with him for 10 years helped shape values, attitudes and the way we operate,” Woodward said. “He was very strict about a lot of things: integrity, character. He had very high standards in terms of providing professional, quality care.”

For Woodward, one of the most rewarding parts of running the funeral home is going above and beyond for the families in the Spartanburg community.

 “We truly try to celebrate lives well-lived,” Woodward said. “The person does not have to be highly educated. The person does not have to be in some highly visible professional position. We treat everybody we serve with dignity and respect. I feel that’s the kind of treatment families value and treasure.”

In 2016, Woodward; her daughter, Stinson; and the staff of J.W. Woodward Funeral Home recognized the funeral home’s centennial with service projects and presentations on its history. The centennial culminated with roughly 500 people across the community gathering for a celebration to honor the well-respected business.

“I think the community appreciated the opportunity to celebrate an entity that had operated for 100 years,” Woodward said.

Although both of her two children are involved in J.W. Woodward Funeral Home’s operation, Woodward hasn’t pressured them to take over and remains the face of the family business in the way her father once did.

“I am 71 years old, but I work like I’m 30,” Woodward chuckled. “I enjoy what I do. It’s rewarding to me to have a celebration of a person’s life that makes a difference for that family.”