Sam James, with his winning smile and helpful manner, has always been a few giant steps ahead of the pack.
Now, he has broken ground on a 9,000-square-foot funeral home on two acres of land.
Long before he entered Erskine College, he worked at a funeral home in Huntersville, N.C., his hometown, and eventually discerned that he had found his calling.
While studying business administration at Erskine, he earned a degree in mortuary science from nearby Piedmont Technical College, where he started an on-line program for the South Carolina College of Mortuary Science and has served as an adjunct professor.
By 2008, the year after his summa cum laude graduation from Erskine, he was traveling through China. He discovered along the way that many people were impressed with his height—he’s six feet six inches tall—and wanted to be photographed with him.
But Sam had not gone to China simply to flash his smile.
He went to China to deliver an address at the Funeral Institute of Shanghai International Conference, and to teach funeral directors in Asia about American methods.
While Sam was teaching, he was learning, too. A close look at the Chinese funeral industry confirmed for him the significance of the human factor in his chosen profession.
Despite the speed and scale of funeral operations in Shanghai, “I still saw families overtaken by grief,” he said. “And it reminded me that even in a ‘factory’ situation, you are dealing with real families and real emotions, just like I do in America every day.”
Back in the United States, the family funeral business that employed Sam was eventually sold, and at the end of October 2010 he decided to go solo, using another funeral home’s facilities and gradually growing his own business.
Working hard to keep costs down for the families he serves, Sam offered an alternative to other funeral services in the Charlotte area, where costs can add up to three times what he charges.
And he embarked on the quest to open his own funeral home.
“It took me eight months to acquire the land and get permits to build,” he said. “We have been under construction for a couple of months and hope to be in the facility in the early part of 2012.”
Sam told Andrew Warfield of the Huntersville Herald, “I have said I would be a lower-cost provider and I have done that.”
During the months of operation without his own facility, Sam has had many more clients than he might have expected. “If they shop around, they are going to come to me, and that’s fine,” he said.
“But there are some people who come because it’s me and they know me and I’m a local guy. It’s encouraging and heartwarming that I have built that kind of following because I am so young,” he told Warfield.
Meanwhile, Sam has part-time employees working for him. He said he will be hiring “a full staff” once he is in his own facility, and he looks forward to that.
“I am very glad to be facilitating job creation in a time of high unemployment and uncertainty for so many.”
He is thankful for his success, and says it makes him glad he made the extra effort he did when he was employed by the family funeral business. “I treated that funeral home like it was my own, and I wasn’t just another employee and it was more than just a 9-to-5 job.”
Looking back on his Erskine days, when he maintained a high grade point average, participated in student government and organizations, and also earned a degree from another institution, Sam, who is still teaching at Piedmont Tech and is active in his church and several civic organizations, says, “I lived my life then like I do now. One hundred miles per hour.”
He adds some advice for current students—“Work hard and play hard; and whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
Sam is married to Liz Davis James, a member of the Erskine College Class of 2008. She is employed as manager of inside sales at an office supply company, has joined the Lions Club with her husband, is a member of the North Mecklenburg Women’s Club, and chairs the congregational care committee at SouthLake Presbyterian Church.
“She enjoys her work and goes along with me to all my civic activities,” Sam said of his busy wife. “We hope to make it to Erskine Alumni Day in the spring.”