Obituary: James W. Tunie Sr. / Funeral home owner in Homestead since 1960
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In more than five decades as a funeral director, James W. Tunie Sr. had the slightly odd habit of not asking his grieving customers for payment. And in cases where friends or family members of the deceased couldn't afford his services, Mr. Tunie even performed his duties at no cost inside his James W. Tunie Funeral Home in Homestead.
Mr. Tunie -- reserved about offering personal details but otherwise capable of talking to anyone and everyone like a childhood friend -- had a compassionate nature trained on helping the families who needed him, his friends and family members said.
He told customers the most important thing was for them to bury their loved one and worry about paying for it later, said his longtime friend and co-worker, Ronald W. Jenkins.
"He catered to people whether they had money or not," said Mr. Jenkins, who was 13 years old and doing odd jobs at the McKeesport funeral home where Mr. Tunie, then in his late 20s, was working as an apprentice. "That was just his nature -- he never really talked about it or bragged that he did it."
Mr. Tunie, a prominent African-American resident of Homestead whose funeral home served generations of local residents and became a point of pride in the community, died of cancer of the larynx and throat on Dec. 15. He was 85.
Born July 11, 1927, Mr. Tunie grew up in Homestead one of seven siblings in the upright household of a Baptist minister and his wife, according to his longtime sweetheart and ex-wife, Evelyn Hawkins Tunie.
In the summer of 1941, Mr. Tunie -- then 14 years old -- went to work in the Larimer funeral home owned and operated by the late George W. Gaines, a close friend of Mr. Tunie's parents. He lived at the funeral home while also attending Westinghouse High School, and was so impressed by Mr. Gaines's work that he decided to follow in his footsteps and become a funeral director.
After graduating from Westinghouse in 1945, Mr. Tunie served in the Army during World War II until 1946. After his discharge, Mr. Tunie returned to his parents' house in Homestead and used the benefits of the GI Bill to enroll in the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in 1947.
That was about the time he spotted Ms. Hawkins, a pretty girl whom he later said looked older than her 13 years, standing outside "The Barn," an African-Americans-only dance hall in South Park where she had been jitterbugging with family members and friends.
Too young to date, Ms. Hawkins thought he was charming and intelligent but put him off -- no visits, no dates, no calls except once a year in the summertime -- until she was 16 and her father decided she was old enough to date. The couple ultimately married in 1954 and raised five children: James Tunie Jr. of Shelbyville, Tenn.; Terri Tunie Reed, deceased; Linda McGhee of Monroeville; Tamara Tunie Generet of New York City; Stacey Tunie of Jefferson; and Michelle Lockley of Duquesne.
The couple divorced in 1982, remarried in 1985 and divorced again in 1993.
After graduating from mortuary science school in 1948, there were no immediate openings available at local African-American funeral homes, so Mr. Tunie worked as a laborer for four years at the Hays Brick Yard, where he made and stacked bricks to fill orders.
That job motivated him to continue trying to become a funeral director, his friend said.
"He said if he had stayed in the brickyard, he would have died in the brickyard," Mr. Jenkins said. "That's hard work, making bricks."
A funeral director apprenticeship finally became available, and Mr. Tunie was able to work at the Frances A. Keith Funeral Home in McKeesport while also working a night shift at a hotel in the Hill District to make extra money, Ms. Hawkins Tunie said.
Mr. Tunie became a licensed funeral director in 1956 and established his own funeral home in 1960. With the help of friends and family members including Ms. Hawkins Tunie -- who became a funeral director after graduating from mortuary school in 1968 -- and Mr. Jenkins, who became a funeral director in 2005 after 38 years as a mill worker, the modest business grew so much that it had to relocate several times.
Mr. Tunie is survived by his ex-wife, his remaining five children and 10 grandchildren.
Visitation will be held Thursday from 2 to 9 p.m. at Tunie Funeral Home, 218 E. 11th Ave., Homestead. Funeral services will be held on Friday at 11 a.m. at Clark Memorial Baptist Church, 1301 Glenn St., Homestead.
The family suggests memorial donations to the American Cancer Society or the Juvenile Diabetes Association.
First Published December 19, 2012 12:00 am