There in a time of need
Helping others is what has kept Jon Thomas in the funeral business
Published: Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 29, 2012 at 5:13 p.m.
Serious health problems originally brought Jon Thomas to Gainesville for a liver transplant at Shands.
Jon C. Thomas
Occupation: CEO, Forest Meadows
Personal: Married, three children, six grandchildren
Pets: Capt. Jack, a goldendoodle
Dream partner for lunch: His grandfather, Thomas
Favorite book: "A Land Remembered" by Patrick Smith
Favorite TV: History Channel
Playing in his car: Country
Hobbies: Classic cars, flying model airplanes, grandchildren and bird hunting
Education: Pompano Beach High, 1957; Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science with honors, class president, 1962
Bob Saunders, who had served with Thomas in the Florida Senate in the mid-1970s, visited him during his recovery and Thomas told him how much he and his wife loved Gainesville.
"He said, ‘Jon, I'm 75 years old. Why don't you buy my cemeteries and funeral home?'" Thomas said.
After a family meeting, they did just that. The Thomas family bought Forest Meadows Funeral Home & Cemeteries in 2004 and moved to Gainesville from Tallahassee.
Thomas had already been in the business for nearly 50 years, having owned and operated funeral homes and cemeteries throughout Florida. Between 1964 and 1992, he started, bought and sold operations in Fort Lauderdale, Panama City, Hollywood, Tallahassee and Crawfordville. Between 1992 and 2004 when he did not own funeral operations, he continued working as a consultant for other operations.
Forest Meadows includes three cemeteries and the funeral home on Northwest 23rd Avenue. Since that acquisition, the family also bought Moring Funeral Home in Gainesville and Melrose, Evans-Carter Funeral Home in High Springs, and A-Direct Cremations in Gainesville and Summerfield.
Thomas' son, Jon Thomas II, serves as vice president.
Jon Thomas said the combined operations give them an economy of scale to share costs that are becoming more prohibitive to small funeral homes.
"The industry is being taken over by big public companies," he said. "You're seeing more funeral homes close because you can go on the web to buy a casket. You can be a member of memorial societies."
As funeral expenses rise, more people opt for cremation. Thomas said about 50 percent of their business comes from cremations.
The Thomas family encourages employees to get involved in the community. Forest Meadows hosts fundraising luncheons for local nonprofits and provides food and drinks at charity golf tournaments.
In recent years, Thomas has served on the Florida Medical Examiners Commission and advisory committees for Haven Hospice and the Southeast Tissue Alliance.
The Rotary Club of Gainesville awarded him its Ethics in Business Award to an individual earlier this year, noting his work on behalf of Fisher House, an effort to build a place for patients of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and their families to stay.
"My grandfather always drilled in my head, ‘You can't lie. You can't tell a fib because it'll get you in the end,' so I've tried to be — as painful as it may be — straightforward and go with that," he said.
Thomas was offered his first job in the funeral business at age 15. He was working as a soda jerk at a Howard Johnson when a regular customer offered him $25 a week washing cars, cutting grass and polishing brass at Fairchild Funeral Homes in Fort Lauderdale.
He said he was drawn to the business when he finally got to go inside during calling hours and visitation.
"I saw how the families really appreciated the funeral director. I thought, in this terrible situation of death, to be able to help people across this bridge to after death and to have people really care about you for what you've done for them I thought was a really cool thing. That's how I really got into it because I'm a people person."
In 1964, he started his first business with a partner, Jordan-Thomas Funeral Homes in Fort Lauderdale, while just 25 years old.
Six years later, he was elected to the first of two two-year terms in the Florida House, followed by a four-year term in the state Senate as a Republican from Fort Lauderdale.
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