Frye opens chapel, mortuary in El Centro

April 30, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

To spend time talking with Francis Frye is to get to know an 82-year-old man who has devoted his life to the funeral home industry.

He has been doing it so long he knows when it is time to expand the business, and now, he thinks, is such a time.

Frye, owner of Frye Chapel and Mortuary of the Imperial Valley, based in Brawley, is expanding his family business into the South County market with the opening of Frye Chapel and Mortuary of El Centro.

The business site is on Fourth and Main streets on the northeast corner of a busy intersection.

The question is, can the El Centro area support two such businesses. Frye says "yes."

He said 800 people die in the Imperial Valley each year, which, he added, means there is business for two mortuary companies in the South County.


Frye is expanding into a market that for decades has been home to Hems Bros. Mortuary, which operates mortuaries in El Centro and Calexico. Hems started more than 80 years ago in Calexico and later expanded into El Centro.

Kirk Hems, co-owner of Hems, said he is not worried about the effect Frye's move will have on the business. He said his grandfather, A.R. Hems, started the business and it is continuing to provide quality service to the Valley.

Both Hems' facilities provide embalming services along with handling funeral arrangements and chapel services. Cremation is done in El Centro.

Frye chapel in El Centro is available for all funeral arrangements and chapel services. The embalming and cremation will be done at the Brawley facility.

Frye concedes the old building in El Centro is a work in progress that is still being furnished, but the facility will have its first service tonight.

On Friday, the family of Eunice Lillian Wilabee, a 104- year-old woman who had lived in El Centro since 1921, was at the chapel to make final preparations for the service.

Family members said they are pleased to see Frye expand into El Centro, adding it adds a bit of convenience.

Frye said he has wanted to expand into the El Centro market for awhile, but it has been difficult to find a location. He had considered buying property and building such a facility.

For now he is leasing the building on Fourth with an option to buy.

What now is called Frye Chapel and Mortuary dates back to 1953 when Frye bought Hoopes Funeral Home, which had operated in Brawley since the early 1920s. Frye initially called the business Hoopes-Frye Funeral Home.

When in 1964 he built the facility he now operates in Brawley, he changed the name to Frye Chapel and Mortuary.

In 1968 Frye expanded into Blythe.

In the 1950s there were five mortuary companies in the Imperial Valley, but Frye said through buyouts and closures, the number dwindled to two — Frye and Hems.

Frye said his interest in the South County area was fostered by the fact he has younger people working with him with the energy to help guide the effort.

Three of those people are his daughter, Sheila Kruger, Tracy Mattice, vice president of the company, and Greg Marr. All three are licensed funeral directors.

In addition, Frye said he has other staff who add to the success of the business and his decision to expand.

Mattice said, "We had a lot of people who wanted us to come up here and open a market. That's been a problem. People wanted to us to serve them, but we didn't have a facility on this end of the Valley."

Mattice added, "We have plenty to do in Brawley, but this was a good opportunity."

Hems said he isn't sure if two mortuaries can survive in the El Centro market, but he said what Frye is opening will not be a full-service mortuary.

He said the Frye facility in El Centro is a "false meter" of whether two companies can survive because the El Centro chapel will not house the embalming and cremation services.

"Putting in a full-service mortuary is the only way to gauge it," Hems said, adding what Frye is opening is basically a store front in El Centro.

Hems added, "With him coming into El Centro and saying El Centro can support two mortuaries, I say good luck to him."

He added he is not concerned about any effect Frye's move will have on his business. He did say there are rumors a corporate mortuary company has taken an interest in the Imperial Valley and he is concerned about that.

Frye said he is committed to providing quality service to the Imperial Valley at both his facilities.

He said both facilities are licensed full-service mortuaries. Frye added he wants to see the El Centro facility grow.

"We are not a storefront facility," Frye said. "We are fully operational, licensed by the state of California."

He added the goal of his company is to provide a family-oriented atmosphere in dealing with death.

He said of the company's motto, "We provide the finest quality service with dignity. We stress this with all our staff."

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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