Note: This essay is the second installment in a series entitled, "American Lives," which spotlights great Americans, famous and anonymous, who have lived exemplary American Lives.

These notes on the passing of a friend were penned a few years ago. Alvin was not a public official, but he embodied service to his community.

“Alvin Sams, 63, died at his home in Lorena on Monday,” read Tuesday’s newspaper. “Services pending at Wilkirson-Hatch-Bailey.” Although I had received the news for the first time via the telephone the evening before (and cried), the stark reality of the newsprint jarred me again. The death of Alvin Sams was a shock. True, Alvin was relatively young—but it was much more than just his age that defied acceptance. He was vigorous. He was full of life. He was Alvin. Of course, death comes to us all at some point. For those of us with a connection to the funeral business, our experience confirms an immutable truth: the circumstances and timing of our demise are as unpredictable as the ultimate outcome is certain. Nevertheless, the loss of Alvin found all of us who knew him unprepared. We assumed (oblivious to the laws of nature) that Alvin would go on forever.

Alvin was a Waco institution. He had a generosity of spirit that came through in every conversation, and people naturally responded to him. Sometimes it seemed as if he knew everyone in town. His roots and worldview were working class. Raised on Bell’s Hill in South Waco, Alvin graduated from University High. Alvin threw the local paper as a youth, worked at a gas station on the Circle as a young man and drove an ambulance during the mid-1960s. He went to work for Wilkirson-Hatch Funeral Home in 1969, and he never left. Over the next thirty-three years, Alvin personified consummate professionalism, but he never lost his common touch. While quite comfortable with (and beloved by) bankers and executives, he reflexively comprehended truck drivers and mechanics. The diversity of mourners, the enormous turnout, and the outpouring of emotion at his own service matched his ample and authentic love for his community.

Alvin was a loving husband, a caring father and a loyal friend. He was also a character, and there are countless Alvin stories. Those accumulated memories of Alvin—as numerous as his infinite collection of friends—constitute his legacy. In trying to organize my thoughts about this unique man, my mind turns to a funeral service in West Texas on a late-summer day in 1997. Alvin and I left Waco before daybreak and we traveled all morning in the company’s brown Chevrolet van, loaded with flowers, funeral equipment and our sacred charge.

Alvin had a well-earned reputation as an inexhaustible conversationalist. He loved to talk. On that morning I left Waco confident that our journey would not be plagued by any uncomfortable periods of silence or awkward pauses in the dialogue. I approached this excursion with delight. True, Alvin was a talker—but I was a listener. He would regale me with tales of his experiences for as long as there was Texas highway, and I found his recollections amusing and endearing. After climbing into a company vehicle with Alvin Sams I customarily emerged from the encounter having learned something. Alvin knew Waco and he knew the Funeral Home. In terms of preserving the past for future generations, Alvin was a priceless resource for historians. I apologize to posterity for not securing his account of the times in which he lived. My craven defense, of course, is that I did not comprehend how limited I was by time.

Working at the funeral home as a part-time funeral assistant and night attendant while I studied history at Baylor, I met Alvin in 1995. Alvin served as a sounding board, a source of information and a friend to me (as he did for many others in my position over the years). My duties included working the overnight shift at the Funeral Home, receiving death calls from families or hospitals and then contacting a licensed funeral director and dispatching him (or her) to the scene. That is, I called funeral directors during the wee hours of the morning and informed them that the remains of some unfortunate soul required their immediate services. Interacting with individuals at 3:30 in the morning allows for extraordinary insight into their character and true nature. Not everyone awakened by a night attendant in the middle of the night reacts with charm and benevolence.

However, when I called Alvin (and sometimes I would call him many times during the same night), he was invariably positive and polite. He was always prepared to “function” (as he liked to describe it). Alvin loved what he did. More precisely, he understood his role in the community, and he was committed to every aspect of it—even when his tasks were unpleasant. I am convinced that Alvin saw his obligations as a funeral director not as his job but as his “calling.” And he understood that his calling required a lifetime, fulltime and all-the-time commitment. He cheerfully responded to families in need regardless of the hour.

As for that day in 1997, we were headed for a small town a few miles west of Post, Texas. The upcoming funeral appeared to be a straightforward affair, so there was no need to spend much time discussing details concerning the service. Instead, we spent many hours on the road that day talking about life. Upon reaching our destination, however, we found that things were not in order. After a series of furious-paced phone calls to the local funeral director, the cemetery caretakers, the vault-company and our colleagues back in Waco, Alvin orchestrated an efficient and reverent service. The family arrived unaware of any agitation and left without a hint of impending or averted crisis. Alvin then proceeded to tie up all the loose ends.

As our already long day continued to grow longer, the local funeral director suggested that we “head on back to Waco.” He assured us that he would see to it that “everything got done.” As the afternoon sun sank steadily lower in the sky, and that long drive back home loomed in our near future, Alvin looked at that man and said, “I’m not worried about it getting done, I’m worried about it getting done right.” We stayed. We waited for the vault. We waited for the “cover.” And we did not start for home until the service was “done right.”

When someone asks me about the value of a professional funeral service, I will usually tell them that story. When I think about dedication and commitment—I usually think about Alvin Sams. Most of the time no one can know what goes on in the privacy of a preparation room or in a deserted cemetery in West Texas—except for the funeral director. When the funeral director was Alvin Sams, I can guarantee that it was “done right.” The thousands of families who entrusted their loved ones to Alvin over the years can rest assured that things were “done right.”

We lost a good man on Monday. And we are going to miss him.