By Jeff Bell
The first location of the family enterprise at 666-668 North High St.
It seems fitting that Harry H. Shaw III, head of a fourth-generation family business in Victorian Village, often quotes his late father, H.H. Shaw Jr., when trying to find the right words to answer a question. Asked what it is like to deal each day with people agonizing over the death of a loved one, Shaw, president of Shaw-Davis Funeral Home, responds, "Dad always said if you get hardened to it, then you should shut the doors. You must be sensitive to people's needs."
And the best piece of advice that Shaw's father ever gave him?
"He taught me you can't lose sight of the fact we're here to help families," he says. "When you're on the other side of this desk, it becomes clear how much help you can be to someone who has lost a family member and that there is value to a funeral service."
Shaw, 59, has been "on the other side of the desk" several times in his life, helping make the final arrangements for his father and other family members. Those experiences reinforced his belief that funerals help the living begin the grieving process for a lost loved one.
He has passed on his philosophy to his sons, Harry H. (Kip) Shaw IV, 33, and Adam, 29, who help him run the business. Kip is the director of the Shaw-Davis funeral chapel at 4341 N. High Street in Clintonville, while Adam works with his father at the funeral home at 34 W. Second Avenue in Victorian Village.
"When we were younger, my brother and I weren't interested in going into the funeral business," Adam recalls. "Our father never pushed the business on us, but we knew it would be there for us if we wanted it.
"As we got older, we saw how our family helped other families in their time of need. We like doing something in life where we lend an ear and a shoulder and then see a family walk away from a [funeral] service recognizing the value of it."
Adam also says he feels good about extending the family tradition in the funeral business. "Not many family businesses last this long," he notes.
Shaw-Davis traces its roots to 1908 when H.H. Shaw Sr. opened an embalming business at 666-668 N. High Street in the Short North. In those days, funerals were held in the homes of the deceased's family. Riding in horse-drawn hearses, funeral directors brought the casket to the home, did the embalming on site and removed the body after the funeral.
By the early 1920s, the idea of "funeral homes" had spawned. The concept was in response to the fact that many families did not have enough room in their homes to conduct a proper funeral service.
In 1924, H.H. Shaw Sr. and his partner, D. Harvey Davis, opened Columbus's first funeral home in a grand, 20-room Victorian home at 34 W. Second Avenue. An advertisement in the Columbus Dispatch at that time described the funeral home as a place "where persons could be removed to immediately after death, prepared for burial and remain until interment, thus relieving the family of all responsibility."
The ad goes on to say the Shaw-Davis Funeral Home "consists of many large, spacious rooms for every requirement: reception rooms, chapel, music room equipped with pipe organ, display rooms, slumber rooms and guest rooms where friends may remain with the deceased."
Friends and family of the deceased could even spend the night on the second floor of the funeral home, which featured "reposing rooms." There was also an infant room where babies and toddlers stayed during services.
The original structure at 34 W. Second Avenue was built in 1888 as a home for Charles Henry Chariton. It was red-brick Italianate, with the low-pitched hip roof, heavy cornice with decorative brackets and frieze windows typical of that style.
In 1942, Permastone was added to the entire exterior, marking the first time that building material was used in Columbus. Later additions included the chapel and carport in 1958. An extensive remodeling of the interior was completed in 1994.
The Shaw family added the Clintonville location in 1946, converting a contempo-rary-style house that had been a "Columbus Citizen Show Home" when built in the early 1940s. A chapel and living quarters have been added there over the years.
The business has retained the Shaw-Davis name even though Harvey Davis pulled out of the partnership a few years after the funeral home opened.
Harry Shaw III says his grandmother, Myrtle Shaw, was the first woman in Ohio to become a licensed funeral director and embalmer. She had been a nurse at the old White Cross Hospital on Park Street, where the Victorian Gate complex now sits.
Harry III and his wife, Anita, also a licensed funeral director, have lived next door to the West Second Avenue chapel for most of their 35-year marriage. Through many of those years, Harry was a leader in the movement to restore and preserve the unique architecture and flavor of Victorian Village and Italian Village.
He seems proud when he points out that he co-authored the city ordinance that led to the establishment of the Victorian Village Com-mission in the early 1970s. He also held a seat on that commission when it was first formed, as well as one on the Italian Village Commission.
In addition, he was the Near North Side Neighborhood Council's representative on the University Area Commission and helped revive the Near North Side Business Association in the 1960s.
Today, Harry and his sons can look back and savor the progress that Victorian Village and the Short North have made over the last 20-plus years. But Adam still remembers the days when prostitutes and other troublesome types could be seen loitering in the alleys of their neighborhood.
"We stuck it out here like many other families," he says. "It's paying off now; the community has done an about-face and everyone who saw it through its growing pains feels really good about it. Now I tell people I live in Victorian Village and they say, 'That's really great.'"
He and his father point out that Shaw-Davis is the only survivor among the six funeral homes that once served the Short North area. "Maybe I'm more persistent than anybody else," Harry says.
But Adam thinks there is more to it than that. He believes it takes a certain mind-set to succeed in a business whose focus – death – is a taboo topic in American culture. So the Shaws commit themselves to helping the bereaved celebrate the life lived by the deceased family member or friend.
"You find value in their life – what they did to contribute to their family and community," Adam explains. "We try to take a stressful situation and highlight those positive things."
He thinks Shaw-Davis is well-positioned to provide that sort of personal care because of its heritage as a family-owned-and-operated business.
"The small things associated with running a family business have been instilled in us by our parents," Adam says. "We've kept the business small so that we can give the same personal service in 2000 as my great-grandfather did in 1908."
Jeff Bell is a freelance writer living in Bexley