Joseph Russ, a West Baltimore mortician who was active in his industry for nearly 70 years, died of heart disease April 16 at his West Baltimore home. He was 98.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Brunt Street, he was a 1933 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School. He also had diplomas from the old Cortez Peters School of Business and the Family Bible Institute.
In 1941 he married Emma Lucille White, whom he affectionately nicknamed "Lamb Pie." That year, they established a funeral business at Dolphin and McCulloh streets. They soon hired three employees and rented hearses and limousines as needed. She later became a licensed funeral director and worked alongside him.
During World War II, Mr. Russ served in the Army. He later attended the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York City in the GI Bill of Rights.
Mr. Russ returned to Baltimore and obtained an apprenticeship at Sol Levinson and Brothers, a funeral home then located on West North Avenue.
"Everybody in the local funeral industry knew Joe Russ," said Stanley T. Levinson, a Sol Levinson owner. "He was a hardworking man. Whatever he had, he made himself."
Mr. Levinson recalled that in the 1940s, Mr. Russ had three jobs. He worked for the Social Security Administration at night, drove a cab by day and arranged funerals.
"When he needed to meet with a family to make arrangements, he took off his cabdriver's cap and put on a bowler hat and a suit coat," Mr. Levinson said. "We knew him so long, he was like part of our family. He came to my wedding."
Mr. Russ and his wife bought a rowhouse at 2222 W. North Ave. in the 1950s. They lived upstairs and established their funeral home on the first floor. Friends said that Mr. Russ was an avid collector of antique grandfather clocks and toy trains. He decorated his business with some of his collections.
He spent 69 years in the funeral industry and was still greeting families at his establishment until about four months ago.
"I called him Uncle Joe," said Hari P. Close, president of the State Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors. "He was a pillar in the industry. He would help anyone in the profession and any family in the community, no matter what their station in life. And very few ran a funeral home at his advanced age."
Friends in the industry recalled him as a "character" who spoke his mind and employed colorful language.
"He was a well-respected and benevolent man," said Doretha Hector, owner of Phillips Funeral Home. "There was nothing too big or too small for him to do for you."
In 1986, Mr. Russ was honored at a banquet as he retired from the board of Ames United Methodist Church, where he was a lifelong member.
He belonged to the Masons, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and the North Avenue Neighborhood Association. He was also active in trade associations and was a past president of the Funeral Directors and Morticians Association of Maryland.
Mr. Russ was an adult student at the Peabody Preparatory from 1969 to 1982. He took piano and, according to notes in his record, loved to play the piano.
Services will be held at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Providence Baptist Church, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave.
Survivors include a brother, Frank Hutchins of Baltimore; and nieces and nephews. His wife of 59 years died in 2000.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun