Gene Pike Jr. has been around a funeral home all his life and the 83-year-old has no plans to retire. The Chattanooga Funeral Home president has probably been in the funeral home business longer than anyone in this area.
While growing up in LaFayette, Ga., Gene and his brother Bill arose early and threw papers for the Chattanooga Times. Then they came home, ate breakfast and went to school. Mr. Pike says “I’ve never been afraid of hard work.”
His father, Gene Pike Sr., was a funeral director at the Wallis Funeral Home in LaFayette and Ringgold. Gene, as he wants to be known, said he spent a lot of time with his dad always asking questions and even answering the phone. When Gene was 12, they needed someone to drive a family car and, without seeking permission, Gene got behind the wheel. He said his dad scolded him, “Son, you shouldn’t be doing that, that’s too dangerous.” Mr. Pike said his dad probably knew he wouldn’t pay any attention to his father’s admonition and he didn’t.
The LaFayette High School graduate said he hung around Jack Algood who taught him to drive a 1946 straight shift pickup truck. He said he knew as a teenager he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Mr. Pike graduated from the John A. Gupton Mortuary School in Nashville in 1959 and for the past 30 years has been board chairman of the college.
Mr. Pike met his wife, Gail Pedigo, in 1957 while making an ambulance run to the Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe. Gail was working as an Xray technician, and fellow hospital employee Pearline Wallace urged Gail to go on a date with Gene. Gail said she agreed and, before going to a movie at the Tivoli, the two went to someone’s home and set up chairs for an upcoming funeral. Mrs. Pike said they then went to the Tivoli and she remembers losing one of her shoes. Gene and Gail got married in 1958 in the pastor’s study of the First Baptist Church in LaFayette. Gail said, “God sent me the right person and gave us a wonderful Christian son, Stephen, who is following in his grandfather and dad’s footsteps.”
Alvin Wunderlich Sr., along with his two sons, Alvin Jr. and Walter, founded National Funeral Home in Memphis in 1931. They came to Chattanooga in 1933 and opened another National Funeral Home. Carroll Wells moved here from Memphis to operate the Wunderlichs’ new Chattanooga business. The names were later changed to Memphis and Chattanooga Funeral home to better identify with the cities.
In 1957 Gene Pike met Carroll Wells, president of National Funeral Home, now Chattanooga Funeral Home. Mr. Wells had been following the younger Pike in LaFayette and knew his potential. Mr. Wells said, “Young man, someday I’m going to retire and we’ll need somebody to work hard, maybe taking my place.” Mr. Pike said he was ready for the challenge and took the job. Mr. Pike became president of Chattanooga Funeral Home in 1977 when Mr. Wells did retire.
Mr. Pike has conducted funeral services for some of Chattanooga’s best known citizens including Mayors Rudy Olgiati, Robert Kirk Walker and Gene Roberts, Commissioner Col. H.P. Dunlap, Hamilton County Judge Chester Frost, Luther Masingill, J.B.Collins, Dr. Lee Roberson, and Dr. J.R. Faulkner.
He remembers when Elvis Presley died in 1977; he went to Memphis to assist with the singer’s funeral service at the Ellis Auditorium.
Service Corporation Incorporated acquired Chattanooga Funeral Home in 1970. SCI has 2,000 chapels in the United States and Canada.
Under Mr. Pike’s leadership, Chattanooga Funeral Home has grown with four chapels, an expanded flower shop, and crematory. They also operate Chattanooga Memorial Park and Hamilton Memorial Gardens.
Mr. Pike is especially proud of the funeral home flower shop. He said, “We not only provide funeral flowers but our designers also can take care of any need, such as grand openings, hospitals, churches, or special arrangements for friends.”
Mr. Pike has had many opportunities with SCI. At one time he oversaw 65 funeral homes in the Eastern United States. He said it was very exciting to share his experiences with other funeral directors. Mr. Pike said he has turned down offers to move as Chattanooga is home with thousands of lasting relationships.
As if arranging funerals isn’t enough, Gene Pike joined the Chattanooga Civitan club in 1965. In 1970, he organized the Claxton fruit cake drive. Each Christmas there was a kick off featuring Miss Chattanooga and Miss Tennessee. Mr. Pike also served as president of the club.He said selling fruit cakes enabled the organization to serve the community in many ways.
At the urging of his friend, the late Jack Benson, Mr. Pike joined the Big Brothers, Big Sisters board and they built a modern office building at Bailey Avenue and Willow Street. Mr. Pike said there are around 250 active big brothers and big sisters now in Chattanooga.
Mr. Pike accepted Christ and was baptized at the age of 12. He joined the First Baptist Church of LaFayette and later transferred his membership to Central Baptist Church at Woodmore. He is now a member of Ridgedale Baptist Church where he teaches Sunday School. He served several years as a deacon and the church finance chairman.
Mr. Pike and his family are very active in the Freedoms Foundation Chattanooga Chapter. He said, “This organization is very much needed to preserve some of our country’s history.”
Mr. Pike was president of the Half Century Club of Chattanooga. He joked, “All we do is eat at our annual picnic,” but he’s proud the club can provide six nursing scholarships a year at Erlanger Medical Center. The late Mayor E.R. Betterton’s family left a generous gift that helped launch the scholarship program.
Mr. Pike said he developed an interest in the piano when the youth department at his church needed someone to play. His mother found a teacher and the youngster began taking lessons. Mr. Pike says he still has his music books, lessons and his notes. He said he has a baby grand and now plays “just for relaxation.” He has also been known to play the organ. He said over 50 years ago, he went on a death call in Red Bank and bought an antique pump organ at the home for $100 that is still in his possession today.
Mr. Pike said thanks to his good friend, Bryant Cook, he wants to concentrate the rest of his life on veterans “where there is so much need.” He supports the Viet Nam Veterans of America chapter 203 and their many projects. Mr. Pike said he is proud to have had a part in bringing the traveling wall into Chattanooga several times. He said the wall has helped bring closure to thousands of families whose soldiers were killed in Southeast Asia.
Mr. Pike said COVID did slow him down and forced him to do a lot of work out of his home, but he’s still on the job every day. He said SCI officials were very impressed with his son Stephen. The younger Pike is following in his grandfather and dad’s footsteps handling many of the day to day functions. Stephen Pike said his dad is only a phone call away.
One of Gene Pike’s mentors is Macon, Georgia, businessman Bill Snow who operated Snow’s Laundry and had started a funeral home. Mr. Pike said he spent time with Mr. Snow in 1970 that impressed upon him the philosophy, “Don’t ever get ahead of your customers.”
As to Mr. Pike’s plan to retire, in his words, “You’ll read my retirement in the Chattanoogan.com obituaries.”