Payne returns home to film documentary on life


Last week Newton native Melvin “Mel” Payne, the founder and CEO of one of largest funeral home corporations in the U.S., returned to his hometown to film segments for a special video for his upcoming 75th birthday celebration.

Now based in Houston, Texas, Payne founded Carriage Services, a publicly traded company, in 1991 and it now has more than 200 locations in 30 states. Payne’s 75th birthday celebration will be Jan. 6, and several of his acquaintances prompted him to create an autobiographical project that would look back at his beginnings in Newton County.

“I’ve had a lot of different people tell me that I should write a book because I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life,” Payne said. “So, I broke my life’s journey into eight chapters, each one of them very distinct, and growing up in Newton and attending Mississippi State was one whole chapter. In preparation, I decided to invite people who were important in each stage of my life and do a video story. So, my son, Preston, hired these videographers, two from New York and two from Houston, Texas.”

On Nov. 8 and Nov. 9, the crew filmed at Payne’s childhood home, his grandparents’ farm, Newton High School and various other places that were integral in his formative years.

The crew will also film in New York, Chattanooga, Tenn., where Payne bought his first funeral home operation and Hartford, Conn. for the video that will be around 25 minutes long.

Payne graduated from NHS in 1961 and graduated from Mississippi State in 1966 with a degree in Chemical Engineering. After that, he would embark on one of the most important journeys of his life.

“I needed money to go to college so I joined the ROTC for $30 a month. And when I graduated we were building up to Vietnam so I had a duty to serve two years and I went into the service in November 1966,” Payne said. “Those two years changed my life forever, and I wound up going to Vietnam right at the peak from November 1967 to November 1968.”

1968 was one of the most volatile years in American history, with the Tet Offensive operation in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and growing anti-war demonstrations in the states. While America was in turmoil, thousands of miles away in Vietnam, Payne was just beginning his own battles.

“When I got to Vietnam, my first year I was the deputy commander of a basic training company,” he said. “I learned a lot about leadership and then in Vietnam, we were learning that just killing a lot of them wasn’t working, so we had to learn to pacify the people in the countryside and win their hearts and minds.  I was put into a civil affairs team and sent out into the middle of nowhere with no American troops within 30 to 40 miles to win the hearts and minds of the local population.”

Payne said the job was very dangerous because he had to go to a different village each day and come up with ideas and communicate those ideas through interpreters. It was then that Payne said he learned to overcome his fear of dying in the line of duty.

“It seemed to me that if I’m afraid I’m going to die doing my job, I’m going to spend a whole year feeling miserable, and even if I’m afraid to die it won’t prevent me from dying,” he said. “So, I have to make a choice either be afraid to die or don’t, so consciously I chose not to be afraid to die. That changed the rest of my life, just that decision. So, when I survived all that and I was leaving Vietnam, I made a commitment and a promise to myself that I was going to go back and live my life to the fullest every day and learn as much as I could.”

Payne changed careers and went back to school and earned his MBA from Tulane University. He worked for Prudential Insurance Co., Texas Commerce Bank and GE Capital before realizing that what he really wanted to do was found his own company.

“What happened in Vietnam was I learned to be comfortable with risk and overcoming adversity under the most extreme, violent circumstances. And from then on, looking back on my life I couldn’t have a normal career, I could never work for a single company,” Payne said.  “I’d learn what I needed to learn then I’d go do something riskier. Later on, I learned that I just had to start my own company so I did that in 1991.”

Payne was contacted by a former colleague at Texas Commerce Bank, Bill Heiligbrodt in March 1988. Heiligbrodt was now at SCI, where he had formed a financial subsidiary called Provident Services staffed by people Payne knew from Texas Commerce Bank and Wedge Group. Heiligbrodt said he would loan Payne the money for to start his company but only if the company would be in the business of buying and operating funeral homes.

“I told him I don’t know anything about that, it sounds depressing,” Payne said. “It took three years for me to get comfortable with that idea.”

It was a personal tragedy that ultimately changed Payne’s mind.

In 1991, his younger brother, Bobby’s, youngest son was killed in a two-car accident where he was the driver along his best friend who was in the passenger seat. The driver of the other vehicle was a mother three. Bobby wanted to meet with the mother’s family and express his regret and sorrow, and the funeral director, Valarie Wages, set up the meeting at the funeral where all three bodies were being laid to rest. The mother’s family expressed their forgiveness at the funeral and Payne said he was inspired by the Wages.

“On the way to the airport I told my brother that I’d been looking at this industry for three years and I was afraid of it because I didn’t think death would be a noble business,” he said. “I said that I was going to go back and start a company and we’re going to be the best there ever was in this industry, and I think we have.”

Now as one of Newton’s most successful natives, Payne is looking for ways to give back. One task is to honor the African-American caretaker, Mary Arrington, who raised he and Bobby after their mother, Joyce, became mentally ill.

“When I went to college at Mississippi State, I remember thinking if I ever become successful I will come back to take care of Mary because I loved her, but she died of heart attack when I was at Mississippi State,” he said. “That broke my heart.”

Last week, Payne spoke with Newton Municipal School District Superintendent Lola Bryant about setting up a scholarship for NHS in honor of Mary Arrington and Joyce Payne.

“I toured the school and we had a wonderful time there with her and her staff,” he said. “I wanted to come back to speak to the students and try inspire them about the possibilities of their lives and how learning can take them far and that you shouldn’t limit yourself in what you can and can’t do.”

Although he presides over a company that generated $255 million in revenue this year and boasts hundreds of employees, Payne still credits his Newton upbringing for all of his success and enjoys coming home whenever he can. 

“Even though I’ve been on the life journey of adventure, my roots are still here and I still view myself as this kid from Mississippi,” he said. “So, it’s good to connect with those who know you best.”