Thirty years after opening the Bel-Air Colonial Funeral Home, Doug Kowaleski, 66, of Madras, died Sept. 6, at St. Charles Bend, after a short illness, but his business lives on.
The funeral home, which Kowaleski designed and built, opened its doors in May 1987, and had operated under his direction since then. The business will continue to operate with licensed funeral directors, Greg Heckman and Kimberly Patterson, in charge.
Even before he opened the business, Kowaleski had long been interested in working at a funeral home. While attending Madras High School, he worked part time at Madras' only funeral home — Madras Evergreen Chapel — which was one of several businesses located where the Harriman Building stands today.
"He found the work interesting and found he had an aptitude for it," said Lynn Kowaleski, his former wife, who was married to him from 1980-2005.
Born Jan. 17, 1951, in Redmond — before Madras had a hospital — to Lawrence and Virginia Kowaleski, Doug Kowaleski grew up in Madras in the house on Fourth Street where Snapshots is now located. After graduating from Madras High School in 1969, he attended Mt. Hood Community College, where he earned a degree in mortuary science.
With his new license, Kowaleski worked at Ridgon/Ransom Colonial Chapel in Salem, and later, Holman's Funeral and Cremation Service in Portland, before returning to Madras in 1977, when he purchased Madras Market from Tom and Mary Mertz. The market was located in what is now the Madras Professional Building on Fifth and C streets.
Kowaleski sold the grocery store in 1979, and returned to Portland to work for Mt. Scott Funeral Home, where he remained until 1986.
During that time, he married and had two children, daughter, Lyndsay (Hessel) and son, Christian.
"In 1985, he was approached by Warm Springs Tribal Council about possibly building a funeral home there," recalled Lynn Kowaleski. "He put together a business plan, but felt the tribes would forever need to subsidize it because of the cost to build and staff it. Council felt at that time it was too expensive and not in the budget."
Even though that idea hadn't worked out, she said, "He never stopped working to buy a funeral home."
Kowaleski offered, unsuccessfully, to buy Madras Evergreen Chapel, which by then had changed hands from Ron and Elaine Toms, to Vic Suratt, and finally to Frank Fitzgerald.
Determined to return to Madras, where his parents still lived and he wanted to raise his young family, Kowaleski came up with the idea that if he built a funeral home himself, he could save half the cost of purchasing an existing business.
"He drew the original plan on a napkin, and then took it to an architect to do the blueprints — all this despite the fact he had never built anything before," said Lynn Kowaleski. "After about 18 months of trying to find financing, the project began in the summer of 1986."
"Doug and his dad worked every day, rain or shine, doing the preliminary work and then hired subcontractors as needed," said Lynn Kowaleski, who moved to Madras with the kids in September 1986, "in time for Lyndsay to start kindergarten in the same classroom where he started school (in what is now Madras Primary)."
For two years, the family lived with Doug's father, Lawrence Kowaleski, in the house his father had built — entirely with hand tools — on Fourth Street, until his father passed away in 1991.
Two years later, Doug Kowaleski finished building a new house for the family, conveniently located across the street from the funeral home, on Northeast 10th Street, and the family moved in.
During the years he operated the business, Kowaleski was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. "We had some wonderful friends that backed us up — answered phones and made first calls," said Lynn Kowaleski, who assisted at the funeral home for the first decade, until she opened the New Images salon in 1996.
For the past 25 years — since Madras Evergreen Chapel closed in mid-1992 — Bel-Air Colonial Funeral Home has been the only funeral home in Jefferson County.
The business was Doug Kowaleski's passion. "He was a gifted restorative artist," said Lynn Kowaleski. "Few people realize the skill involved in that work. If it took 15 minutes or 12 hours to do the work, he would put in the time for the comfort and well-being of a grieving family."
Kowaleski was known for his quick wit and unconventional sense of humor, as well as his professionalism and compassion at work. "He wanted that one-on-one contact with families to be able to serve those families," said Lynn Kowaleski.
Outside of work hours, Kowaleski was also a skilled mechanic, who enjoyed restoring old cars and farm equipment. He also loved discussing business ideas with others, and playing cards at the Madras Elks every Thursday night.
Family members remember his saying, "Don't tell me what you're gonna do; show me what you've done."
Kowaleski is survived by his daughter, Lyndsay Hessel, and son, Christian Kowaleski, both of whom have made their homes in Madras; grandson, Dominic Hessel; brother, Dan Kowaleski, of Portland; sister, Kris Galloway, of Vancouver, Washington; and five adult nephews; and aunt and uncle, Linda and Frank Young, also of Vancouver.
Funeral services for Kowaleski were held Sept. 11, at Bel-Air Colonial Funeral Home, and he was buried at Mount Jefferson Memorial Park Cemetery.