As a funeral director, Eddie Hawkins has helped navigate thousands of grieving families through the dark days following a loss.
He has met many people on one of the worst days of their lives.
However, his compassion and empathy has turned many strangers into his friends. He considers funeral work his ministry.
"I wanted to be involved in some type of ministry. I started working part-time at Texarkana Funeral Home when I was in college and that turned into a ministry," he said. "When somebody comes in to make arrangements for a loved one, it's a terrible time for them. But when you help them, and they thank you, it does make you feel good about what you do," he said.
After 41 years with Texarkana Funeral Home, Hawkins is now retiring from his position as general manager of the funeral home's Texarkana, Ark., location. He plans to stay on in a part-time capacity but is ready for a much needed retirement from the 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 day a year career he has had.
A reception to honor Hawkins on his retirement will be 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Feb.24 at the Trinity Baptist Church Chapel.
Texarkana Funeral Home President Vickers Fuqua said it has been an honor to work with Hawkins for 32 years.
"It is not only the knowledge he brings to the job but the heart and commitment to the families he serves," Fuqua said.
A person has to be naturally sympathetic and respectful for a career in the funeral industry.
"You have to have sympathy. You have to let people know you care," Hawkins said.
Archie Shipp, who has worked with Hawkins a number of years and will be stepping into the general manager position, has seen all of the necessary qualities in Hawkins.
"Eddie shows people a lot of empathy and caring and those are traits we all need to follow," Shipp said.
Hawkins grew up in Camden, Ark., and then moved to Lewisville with his parents. He commuted to Texarkana College and in 1978, started a part time job at Texarkana Funeral Home. It turned into a career and he became licensed as an Arkansas funeral director.
Around 1980, Miller County coroner Harold West made Hawkins his deputy coroner. Hawkins ran for the office himself in 1986 and began a long career as Miller County coroner.
He said funeral home employees and the position of coroner often go "hand-in-hand" because of the hours and the type of work.
As coroner, Hawkins was required to certify the death of any person who died outside of a hospital whether it be a natural death at home or in a nursing home or an accident or homicide. A coroner also works to assist law enforcement agencies to determine the cause of death and whether additional investigation or an autopsy needs to occur.
Hawkins estimates he has pronounced the death of more than 8,000 people in Miller County during his career.
Both positions were demanding and he was constantly on call.
During his earliest years on the job, Hawkins would have to leave his phone number with a 911 dispatcher anytime he went anywhere. Then beepers came along and of course he has been tied to a cell phone in recent years.
"I can turn off my phone now," he said.
He ran for coroner every two years, for a total of 14 elections.
Hawkins has seen the aftermath of numerous tragic deaths from car accidents and shootings.
One of the first death he ever responded to was a young boy struck and killed by an 18-wheeler. It was so upsetting he thought about changing careers.
He had to learn to focus on the job and try not to take it home with him. And that was sometimes easier said then done.
"You see a lot of terrible stuff. It's hard sometimes but you can't dwell on it. "A lot of the time, especially when my children were young, when it was something tragic like a wreck or a shooting, I would just go home and hug them and thank God they were OK."
Hawkins and his wife Janet have two children, Allison Munn and Josh Hawkins. Josh Hawkins followed in his father's footsteps by serving as Miller County coroner for four years.
Hawkins said his wife was always understanding of his being on call. They have been married 39 years and it's always been part of their lives.
"We would take two cars to church, two cars to the movies. She has to have a way home if I get a call," Hawkins said.
Retirement will mean more travel with vacations not cut short by work.
"I will be 65 on Valentines Day. I want to enjoy my retirement and do things I have not had time for. I want to travel and I want to be able to pick up my grand kids from school," Hawkins said.
He also hopes to remain active at Trinity Baptist Church.
Looking back on his career, Hawkins said he would not change a thing.
"I can't imagine a more fulfilling life. There are so many people I would not have met otherwise. I would tell anybody that if they want to go into a field where they can help people, really help people, that a funeral director is one of those fields."