For a time, it seemed that Valerie Wages would not go into the family business.
She thought she'd be a teacher, and she was, for a little while. Having graduated from Georgia College State University with a teaching degree in 1971, Wages initially taught fifth and sixth graders science and math. Then she was a physical education instructor.
But, in 1973, Wages left the education profession and set her sights on joining her family in the business of funeral service. She started funeral work in 1974, and she eventually graduated from the Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in 1977.
Today she is the co-owner and president of the Tom. M. Wages Funeral Service, where she's been in that position since 2006. She considers it a great honor to help families and to remember their loved ones, as well.
"What we really do is help the living begin their journey of grief," she said, "because at that moment, your life has changed forever when you lose someone."
There's a lot of understanding of family dynamics that goes on, and Wages knows that in order to truly honor lost loved ones, that she also has to help ease the transition for families. And, no, it's not something she ever gets used to.
"My dad always said that if you get too used to the grief and it doesn’t bother you at certain times then you have loss your caring side and shouldn't be doing funeral service," Wages said.
In the Wages family, it was Valerie's father -- the Tom M. Wages Funeral Home is named after him -- who was a living example of what it took to lead families in their times of sorrow. His family wanted him to be a doctor, but when a little boy holds grand funeral services for dogs, cats, birds and like, it's clear what he should do when he grows up.
In 1949, Tom M. Wages opened his first funeral home in Lawrenceville. In 1984, the Snellville facility opened.
Because of the family's lasting presence in the neighborhood and its approach to the funeral process, Valerie Wages said people remember them and ask for them individually. Her dad, for example, worked in the family business until he was 81 and died following a heart attack.
"It’s a very difficult time for a family," said Wages, 62. "I think you have to be very compassionate and caring, and you don’t walk in their shoes but you have to be there to help them to walk in those new shoes to deal with their grief…"
Dealing with death, especially the death of children, can be tough, she added. There are times, however, that she does try to get away from the job some. (A perfect day would be doing a little shopping and then relaxing at home. She also enjoys the beach.) Everyone who works at the funeral home tries to do the same thing, as well.
"I like to do movies," she said. "That's my relief. You know go to a funny movie because, you know, you can't let people's sorrows become your sorrows."
"It touches all of us," she added.
As the oldest of five children, Valerie Wages said she's a family oriented person, and that she tries to lead with her compassion and commitment to hard work. Her closest friends, she said, also would say she is detail-oriented.
They would also say she doesn't do enough for herself, she added. That's something she's working on. She thanks her mother, Mildred “MiMi” Wages, for providing a lasting example of living gracefully and independent. She called her "one of the kindest persons I have ever known."
In the future, Wages said the business will stay family run, but that she may take a back seat as the younger ones in the family come forth to run it. Although she didn't say exactly when she'd retire, when that times come, she still plans to be around to help.
"It’s a real honor for me to serve families," she said. "I look at it as a ministry. I think, hopefully I've served families well."