Verna McKelvin stands in the family room of Wells Memorial and Event Center, surrounded by pictures of her life. An array of framed cross-stitches dot the walls. Beyond her, barrel-racing trophies sit on a table.
The manager is used to planning other people’s funerals. But last weekend, she got the idea to mock her own. That way, families could get an idea of how to throw a celebration of life.
When her daughter-in-law saw the decorated room, she lost it, sobbing.
“If you want to know how someone really feels about you, plan your own funeral,” she says. “She must really love me.”
Love. It’s something McKelvin has only become accustomed to recently. She’s risen from a long road of heartache. But, that’s what makes her so good at the job she does now.
“People who come from a normal household, it’s nothing new to them,” McKelvin says. “I wasn’t brought up that way.”
McKelvin made herself an icon in the Plant City community. She gives motivational speeches at Toastmasters. She greets strangers as a Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce ambassador. She helps raise funds for causes as a Plant City Lions Club member.
But, the scars from her old life are never far behind her.
McKelvin’s eyes don’t tear as she recounts the many tragedies of her life.
“You weren’t allowed to shed a tear; things were always in turmoil,” McKelvin says.
Her alcoholic father was a truck driver with limited patience for his three children. McKelvin’s mother often asked the kids to find somewhere else to stay on the short stints he was at the house.
“At 13, I found myself trying to find where to stay,” McKelvin says. “Our value was nothing. We should never speak out loud, because our ignorance would show.”
When they were in his way, he’d punish them. Once, he locked her in a truck. Another time, he let out her only confidant, a nameless pony she would cry to in secret. They never found the pony.
After getting into trouble on the streets, McKelvin entered high school, breaking the cycle by joining Future Business Leaders of America. At 18, she married her middle-school sweetheart, Louie Rodriguez, who became the fire chief of Springhead Fire Department. He also became the father to their two sons, Joe and Chris.
McKelvin had her Leave-it-to-Beaver family.
But, like white-noise static on a station, it all came crashing down around her. After a happy family vacation to the mountains, Rodriguez was on his way to work when he died in a motorcycle accident.
“The word ‘love’ couldn’t be used in my (childhood) house,” McKelvin says. “I stepped out afraid and gave my love to (Rodriguez).”
Alone with her two sons, her parents willed her to move back in with them. But, like a wild horse, she had other plans.
“One thing dad instilled in me was that I could do it on my own,” McKelvin says.
The gold trophies glitter in the corner at Wells. They are 3-foot-tall reminders of persistence. Perhaps it was that pony friend so many years ago, but McKelvin had grown up always loving the gentle beasts.
After the accident, McKelvin bought a house where she boarded horses. She started barrel racing. Then, the tough-as-nails mama started breaking horses. During this time, she met her second and current husband, Leon.
They were married and created a blended family. But, blessings didn’t lasted long. Three of Leon’s relatives died in an intentional house fire. Then, her mother was found uptown in a parking lot, disabled from a stroke.
Still, McKelvin carried on. When her youngest son graduated high school, she gave up her last two horses. Then, she saw an ad for Wells Memorial.
In her 15 years, she’s changed the culture of the funeral home from a black and mauve “Addams Family” venue to a place of peace. Wells owner, Dignity Memorial, trusted her with $150,000 to create a welcoming atmosphere two years ago.
“My heart is here to take care of the families, not for a job,” McKelvin says. “I tell people this is not a job.”
THE ROAD TO SUCCESS
What was your first job?
Stefano’s Pizza, which is now Ralph Feola’s Allstate office.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Alive. You can tell from my childhood we didn’t sit and make dreams. I just wanted to survive. I just wanted to live.
What’s the best advice you have for being successful?
Do it afraid. If it’s worth it, do it afraid. Because you’re always wondering at that next step, “Can I do this?” And a lot of times, fear prevents us. So do it afraid. I’ve been afraid all my life. Now, my fears are good.
Who is your role model?
Those two (FBLA) teachers.They were the only thing I had to look to.
What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve learned?
Coming up in the house as I did, I thought I knew survival … but when I was widowed, that was true survival. My heart was ripped.
ON THE LIGHTER SIDE
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
To heal. Not necessarily medically, but hearts. Hurting hearts.
What’s the No. 1 played song on your iPod?
Oh my goodness, I’m an old hippie. Are you kidding me? The music of the 70s. That’s my life.
If you were reincarnated as an animal, what animal would it be?
Cat. Just because cats are my favorite. I love horses, I really did, but cats have their own mind. They have an attitude.
What’s your least favorite food?
Steak. If you give me a choice of steak or chicken, I’ll pick chicken.
Where would you go in a time machine?
I think I would go to the 60s. Because I think life was more carefree. I was born in 1960, but to be there as a 15-, 17-, 18-year-old would have been fun.