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We had so much fun interviewing the presidents of Pierce Mortuary Colleges in our “Meet Your Pierce Mortuary College’s Campus President” series. James Shoemake presided over Dallas Institute of Funeral Service, in the Dallas, Texas’ campus. James Shoemake retired in May, 2018 and it was a pleasure to conduct this interview. Our DIFS campus offers funeral service programs and Shoemake ensured that the campus ran smoothly and carried the high-quality, real-world funeral service education and training to which Pierce Mortuary Colleges aspires. James Shoemake answered a few questions about what drew him to DIFS, a little about himself, his vision for the future of the College and his past experiences.
Let’s meet James Shoemake …..
When did you join Dallas Institute of Funeral Service?
I started in 1980 as an opportunity to teach my favorite subject, Human Anatomy. Having always enjoyed teaching others, I saw the opportunity to teach Human Anatomy as terrific. I also had the opportunity to teach Public Health, Chemistry, Funeral Directing and Small Business Management over the years. In 1981, I started graduate school at the University of Texas at Dallas, where I earned my master’s degree in 1984.
Tell us about yourself, where did you grow up, what did you do in school?
I was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, the son of missionary parents. I grew up in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic, where I graduated from high school. Consequently, I spoke Spanish before English. This proved to be beneficial with all the Latin terms used in the various science classes in mortuary school.
I moved to Dallas to attend Southern Methodist University where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics in 1973. Following graduation, I took a position at the Christian Funeral Home in Decatur, Texas. This led to a desire to become a licensed member of the funeral profession. I started my internship in 1974 and commuted to Dallas in 1975 to attend the Dallas Institute of Mortuary Science (now Dallas Institute of Funeral Service) graduating in 1976.
While in Decatur, I went on to be named Funeral Director in Charge of the Christian Funeral Home until I moved back to Dallas in 1978. Upon my return to Dallas, I was employed at Dallas Morticians Service where I served as manager and embalmer until I took a position at Dallas Institute in 1980.
Why is your role important?
As President of Dallas Institute of Funeral Service, I have had the privilege of teaching, as well as being administrator of my alma mater. I strongly believe it is very important to pass along the knowledge I received to others just beginning the learning process to be a good embalmer and funeral director.
How long have you have worked/been president of DIFS?
After serving as an instructor and administrative assistant to former President Robert Kite; I was named to be his successor in the February of 1992 and actually became president in December of 1992. I have been president for twenty-five years now. I continued to teach until two years ago to spend more time mentoring and helping at not only Dallas Institute but our other Pierce Colleges. I will be retiring in May, 2018.
We will talk more about your retirement in a few minutes… Would you tell us what do you love about your job?
I love the fact that I get to know my students whom I have encountered around our great nation as I travel and attend conferences and meetings.
Why are students coming to DIFS as opposed to another college/program?
I believe they come because they have heard that it is the best school for funeral service education.
From your perspective, what is it that makes the Dallas campus stand out, makes it special?
I remember former students telling me before I attended Dallas Institute of Funeral Service that it was the “Harvard” of the Southwest. I have tried to instill this attitude in our students and maintain a high level of academic excellence.
You’ve also been successful at growing your new online programs. Tell us more about your online offerings.
Our school is changing, the mode of delivery (of education) has evolved to the online offerings of not only our Funeral Director’s Certificate Program but now the Associate of Applied Science Program is offered online. I see these programs as providing the opportunity to those who live too far away to attend school on campus.
Which initiative that you’ve helped implement, are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the fact that funeral service education moved into the technological age and we now offer funeral service education both on campus and online.
Is there any one experience that you can recall that shaped your philosophy on higher education?
Consistency, integrity, compassion, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I have willingly worked many hours overtime and on weekends to accomplish a task originally assigned to another who failed to complete the task on deadline. They usually learn to follow through after one time of messing up.
What is it about the campus and PMC that inspired you to apply for the presidency role at Dallas Institute of Funeral Service?
I truly felt that the presidency at Dallas Institute was a position to be honored and respected. It was a true honor to be chosen since I was having the opportunity that only one other man had had the opportunity to serve as president of his alma mater, DIFS.
What will you will be doing after DIFS in your retirement?
I expect to be more involved in some volunteer activities primarily through my church. I have been told that more things will come along when others discover that I am retired.
You will be retiring in May 2018, from Dallas Institute of Funeral Service, can you tell us about your time at DIFS, what you will miss the most, and what you will do in your retirement?
I remember fondly the early days back in 1980 when President Kite offered me the opportunity to teach my favorite subject, Human Anatomy. I replaced one of my favorite teachers, Norman Biggs, I am sure many of the students I taught in those early years did not give me much credit as a new teacher but I consistently tried to emulate those who had taught me over the years and I tried to use those principles that I enjoyed the most. Later I taught Chemistry, Funeral Directing, Small Business Management, and even a term of Accounting. The most satisfying was when I encountered graduates in the years following graduation when they would say, if not for Mr. Shoemake, I would never have passed Chemistry or Anatomy.
I am sure that I will miss the people I have taught, worked with, or met in my years at Dallas Institute. I have met people all across the US and some foreign countries who also serve in funeral service. These will be missed most as I have met them through participation in the National Funeral Directors Association, the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards, and the American Board of Funeral Service Education.
I do look forward to a more relaxed retirement seeking other ways to be involved in my community and maybe remotely with funeral service. I have volunteer opportunities that I expect will take up much of my time as well as involvement in my church and its ministries.
Is there anything that you want to tell your faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of Dallas Institute of Funeral Service?
I would say that Dallas Institute is moving forward into the future with innovation by providing the opportunity for students to attend the oldest school of funeral service in the Southwest either on campus or online for all its programs.
What advice do you have for DIFS students to make the most of their time here?
You will always have the opportunity to do something else but your time in school may be your only opportunity to accomplish the goal of achieving a funeral service education.
If you had to describe yourself to someone in just a sentence or two, how would you describe yourself?
He is dedicated to the profession and to funeral service education. He loved to teach and found ways to promote others to learn.
What is one of your favorite things about Dallas Institute of Funeral Service?
The thing I enjoyed most about working at Dallas Institute was the opportunity it afforded me to attend many conventions, conferences and meetings related to our profession, and encountering many old friends and former students throughout the United States.
What made you choose higher education for your career path?
I don’t think it was a conscious choice I made but one which the opportunities presented themselves. I was fortunate enough to attend college in Dallas and then had my first real job working at a funeral home as a business manager. I had always wanted to go to graduate school, so when I started teaching it became an opportunity to do both. From that point on as they say, the rest is history.
What is the coolest perk about being a college president?
The coolest perk of being a college president is the opportunity to travel to conventions and meetings and having the opportunity to encounter many former graduates, old and new friends.
What has surprised you during your time as a PMC campus president so far?
I have been surprised by the great friendships I have made while at Dallas Institute. Some have been like family throughout the years.
What kind of teaching innovations have you implemented?
When I was teaching regularly, I remembered what it was like when I was in the student’s seat. I repeated many terms I was teaching by interpreting my own definitions and encourage the students to do the same. I also remember (and my graduates will attest) that I would illustrate the anatomical position by standing with my back to the board and saying imagine Mr. Shoemake plastered against the board. I don’t know how innovative any of these are, but I do have many graduates who will say if not for Mr. Shoemake I would never have passed Anatomy or Chemistry.
What do you perceive as the most critical aspect of campus life, with respect to the College’s academic mission?
I believe the student’s focus should be first to be successful as a student and then make time for self-gratifying activities. We can deprive ourselves for a time but in the end, we would have accomplished something that will enable us to achieve all those other things.
Tell us about your family and what you enjoy doing when you aren’t working.
When my son died of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia just shy of his 20th birthday sixteen years ago; my wife and I refocused our lives on serving others and consequently enjoy activities through our church like going on mission trips to the South Texas Rio Grande Valley. We both enjoy reading and taking the occasional trip.
Why would you encourage more alumni to become involved with DIFS?
I believe our alumni and licensees have an obligation to the profession to be mentors to the next generation of funeral directors or embalmers. Our school is just one place where this can take place.
What’s the best piece of advice you received while a college student yourself?
The best piece of advice I received from a coworker who knew I was going to mortuary school said “do not miss any classes” and I would say the same to any current student.
What advice do you have for DIFS students after they graduate?
Remember that you are always being watched by the community in which you serve. They will all know who you are, and they will talk if they see you doing things that cause you to lose their respect.
What advice do you have for DIFS students to be the best in funeral service after they graduate?
You are always going to learn new things; remember that you should serve as you would like to be served.
What should students know about DIFS?
Dallas Institute was the result of the closing of the Dallas School of Embalming during WWII when many men went to war or were involved in the war effort. It is still the oldest school of funeral service education in the Southwest. Its faculty and staff today represent over 200 years of teaching experience. Seven members of our faculty are licensed funeral directors and embalmers who have worked in funeral service and are subject matter experts.
What’s been your journey to becoming a Pierce Mortuary College campus president?
I attended Dallas Institute in 1975-1976 and returned in 1980 as an instructor. In 1981, I started graduate school earning my Master’s Degree in 1984. In February 1992, upon long-time president, Robert Kite’s announcement of his retirement, I was named Vice-President of Dallas Institute of Funeral Service. In December of 1992, I was named President when Mr. Kite retired after 42 years at Dallas Institute.
What’s the best part of being a campus president?
I enjoy meeting and knowing our students, they are like my own children, I grieve with them when they suffer or fail, I celebrate their accomplishments and I enjoy encountering them in the years after they finish school.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever were given?
Do your best in whatever you do. You may not have the opportunity to fix it later. Do the job right the first time.
What is a hidden talent, favorite hobby or little-known fact people don’t know about you?
I speak Spanish fluently and help others learn English through an ESL program at my church.
What sets your leadership style apart?
I think I have a servant leadership style. I will not ask anyone to do something I would not do myself.
What are your most memorable awards in your career?
I have been surprised to receive two different awards from the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards: The President’s Award for 2008 and The Innovations in Funeral Service Education Award for 2009. I was also honored by the Dallas County Funeral Directors Association as its Distinguished Funeral Director Award recipient for 2009.
If you had a chance to address every student and you had a few things to say, what would you tell them?
Remember who you belong to, make them all proud of you and your accomplishments. And remember that your actions will speak louder than words.
What are three things you want the community to know about DIFS?
Dallas Institute has been a good neighbor, our students will be good citizens wherever they will serve, and they will be professionals in funeral service.
How can the community get involved?
Our students are active in various organizations like the Lions Club International providing help to children with disabilities and Women in Black who are women learning to be professionals and by serving other women and children. Our school has been active in providing blood through donations for over forty years in the Dallas area.
Tell us a little about your faculty at DIFS.
Our faculty has over 200 years of teaching experience. Seven members of our staff are licensed funeral directors and embalmers. All have worked in funeral service and are subject matter experts in their fields.
Effecting change can be especially hard at colleges. What have you learned from your past experiences?
I have learned that we need to have our “cheese” moved occasionally and that if we don’t have change occur we may cease to exist. Frequently the ones with the greatest initial opposition can provide the incentive to change and will accept the changes before others.
What was your strangest job in college?
I have had to be a plumber, painter, carpenter, electrician, computer tech, and a jack of all trades. I have learned a lot and continue to learn how things work.
What issue in higher education troubles you?
My biggest concern relating to higher education today is the continual interference by the federal government in how higher education takes place. I expect that fewer independent colleges & universities will exist in the future.
You worked at Southern Methodist University and Dallas Institute of Funeral Service. What experiences and people have shaped you over the course of your career?
I worked at Southern Methodist University as a teacher’s assistant, my favorite teacher was an excellent professor and teacher and I have gleaned much of my teaching style from her. As a new instructor at Dallas Institute and later as an administrator my mentor was my predecessor, Robert Kite. He was the most patient person with all his staff and students. I have tried to be patient and slow to anger or jump to conclusions.
What intrigues students about online learning?
Most think it will be easier or shorter but, it puts much more responsibility on the student to be more disciplined. It does offer the opportunity they may not have if they must move or commute to school.
How do you like to spend your free time on campus?
Though not a lot of free time, I love reading about funeral service’s many facets such as: customs and traditions, new technology, and those who paved the way for us.
What’s a favorite TV show, recent movie you’ve seen or book you’ve read?
I like mystery novels and am reading one or two different books all the time. I like NCIS (the original one).
Lastly, who’s your favorite ball player?
I’ve always liked baseball and my favorite was Mickey Mantle as I was growing up.