Bob Shelby: A Lifetime of Service in Funeral Care and Community Dedication

OGR Emeritus member, Bob Shelby, celebrated his 95th birthday on February 4. Throughout most of his life he has been involved in the funeral service. While some things have changed over time, there are some absolutes that remain consistent, and one of those is his love of serving the people in his community of Covington, Indiana. 

To truly understand Bob's journey, it's essential to delve into his family history and connection with the funeral home. his father, Frank Shelby, began working at the funeral home in 1924. In 1936, upon the owner's passing, Frank became the owner of the funeral home, renaming it Shelby Funeral Home. He moved his family into the funeral home when Bob was in second grade and this is where Bob spent his childhood. 

Bob recalls the first time he went out on a removal with his father. "It was 1943 on New Year's Day," he shared. "Some ladies had been out back of their home using a gas engine when the gas container burst and killed one of them immediately. I was just shy of my fourteenth birthday when I went out with my dad on that call."

When not in school, he would help out at the family business, delivering chairs and equipment to homes for visitations and helping during funeral services. World War II changed his role when his dad, who was not eligible for military service due to his age and the fact that he had six children at home, joined the Red Cross. Frank was sent to Italy for a year, leaving his wife and children behind. Bob's mother was given a funeral director's license so that she could continue to run the business and Bob, at 15 years old, was granted a special driver's license so that he could help with the funeral home and go out on ambulance calls. 

"I liked the ambulance service," he said. "We handled these calls until 1976 when the county took it over." He felt like he was able to help his neighbors by transporting them to the hospital and getting them the care they needed. 

Caring for people is what has kept Bob Shelby going all of these years. He became a licensed funeral director on February 4, 1950, his 21st birthday! Even as the role of the funeral director has changed, he has found ways to change with it. When he first started, phone calls were handled by a switchboard operator. If he left, someone had to be at the house to receive calls for the funeral home and ambulance service. Now calls are forwarded to cell phones and directors can be found no matter where they are. 

Bob remembers the days where visitations were held in people's homes. He shared that, "Some of those homes in the country did not have electricity, so we had to run lights off of our car battery in order to light up the casket." During World War II, visitations ended by 10 p.m. in order to save fuel. he continues to believe in the value of visitations in helping the families even if they don't seem to care as much about funeral rituals. From multiple day visitations and a funeral the following day to same day visitation and service, what people are asking for is very different from when he first began. "They still miss their loved one, but how this is expressed has changed," Bob opined. "It seems that people have money for a 4-wheeler and a boat, but no money for a funeral."

And yet, through the many changes in his career, Bob's love for his family has been a constant. Many OGR members have met his wife Helen when she accompanied him to OGR conferences. They were happily married for 70 years and 6 months. Bob recalled that, "We met at an alumni banquet. She was there with a friend of mine, but she danced with me. I took her home at the end of the night!" Together they raised their two sons, Rob and Doug. 

While Helen helped in the funeral home, they took care not to push the boys into working at the funeral home when they were young. Eventually, Rob helped with the ambulance service and Doug became a funeral director in 1986 and joined the funeral home staff. 

OGR has always been an important part of Bob's life. He has made many friends over the years through his participation in association events. He was eager to learn new things and discover best practices that would help him professionally. Bob's dedication to OGR is one of the reasons he was given Emeritus status by the OGR board, a rare honor bestowed upon very few.

As Bob reaches his 95th birthday, he has passed on the legacy of his funeral home to a family who owns a funeral home 30 miles to the north. The sale marks the end of a cherished era spanning over three generations. Yet he can look back on a long and meaningful career that lasted over seventy years and is filled with memories of helping his neighbors.

The entire OGR family extends heartfelt wishes to Bob on his special milestone birthday. We hope to celebrate with you at our conference in Savannah. Happy 95th Birthday, Bob Shelby!

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of The Independent. To read this and more great articles about the latest news in independent funeral service, check out the digital version of the magazine here. 

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