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Saving a downtown institution

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Watkins Cooper Lyon Funeral Home of Clarksville and owners Mike and Jane Lyon / March 31, 2014
It was viewed by many as a body blow for the lower part of South Boston’s downtown district — the loss of a reliable business, Brooks Funeral Home, which had been in operation locally since 1935.

More than that, to many families served by the home, the news that Brooks would be closing March 31 — the casualty of a changing industry — was cause for genuine sorrow.

The gloom was lifted this week when Michael and Jane Lyon, owners of Watkins Cooper Lyon Funeral Home in Clarksville and Cremation Society of Virginia, agreed to step in and save the South Boston institution.

The Lyons signed a letter of intent Friday to affiliate with Brooks, which occupies two buildings on the lower part of South Boston’s Main Street. The name will change to Brooks Lyon Funeral Home of South Boston.

In describing the transaction, Mike Lyon said, “The alliance already has begun in earnest, although we’re just at the starting block.” He said he anticipates closing on the deal within 30 days.

Until then, Brooks Funeral Home will continue in business, after earlier announcing its last day would be Monday.

With the change in ownership, the Lyons will seek to retain the most valued and trusted parts of the business, while introducing innovations they believe will better serve the public.

Lyon said he would be looking to “keep as many staff as it is logical to keep,” including Betty Jones, who has agreed to stay on with the successor company. The outgoing owner-operators, Kathy and Gene Comer, are Mrs. Jones’ daughter and son-in-law. Her late husband, Doug Jones, was the funeral home’s longtime operator.

Lyon said the funeral home also would stay at the downtown location, in keeping with the wishes of Brooks’ clientele.

“Our market study told us that the choice and preference of their client base was to remain at that location,” he said. Lyon added that he has hired an architect and engineer to go over the building and “assess the status of their facilities to serve families in the most modern way possible.”

Lyon, who has been in the funeral home business in Clarksville for 28 years, recently acquired Lancaster Funeral & Cremation Services of Louisburg, N.C. When the news came out that Brooks was closing in South Boston, he said his “phone lit up” in response. The pending demise of Brooks Funeral Home came as sad news, said Lyon, and he and his wife are happy to be able to work out an agreement to keep the business going.

“We look forward to a very close alliance with the Comer, Jones, Brooks family,” he said.

In deciding whether to enter the South Boston market, Lyon said he and his wife “had to do some soul searching on whether we thought we had something to offer to the marketplace in a quick period of time. Our strong convictions were, ‘Darn right we do.’

“This is a very passionate move for us,” he said

Residents of Clarksville, the Lyons have many ties to South Boston and Halifax County. Jane Lyon, who holds a Master of Divinity from Duke University and pastors at Antioch Baptist Church in Wylliesburg, is a former employee of Halifax Regional Health System. She also served as a division personnel manager for Burlington Industries when it operated plants in Halifax and Clarksville. Mike Lyon, a graduate of Gupton Jones College of Mortuary Science, worked at funeral homes in Elkin, High Point and Durham, N.C. before the couple moved from Durham to operate Watkins Cooper Lyon Funeral Home. He is a current board member of Halifax Regional Health System.

By pooling the resources of the three homes in South Boston, Clarksville and Louisburg, N.C., Lyon said “we’ll go from a staff of a few [at Brooks Funeral Home] to a few dozen.” In addition, he foresees expanding the offerings available to families in need of traditional funeral or cremation services.

“Affordable pricing will be a big part of what we’re offering as we move forward” with the acquisition, said Lyon.

“We’re assembling a quality team that I think can do a great job serving Halifax County,” he added. “We’re going to be a presence in the community in even a stronger way.”

He praised the management of American National Bank for their assistance in helping to secure financing for the transaction and noted it would take some time to meet all the regulatory and licensing requirements with the change in ownership: “We’re anticipating having a contract [this week].”

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