Claremore resident Ryan Payne has much to be thankful for this holiday season.
In October, Payne assumed duties as director at Musgrove-Merriott-Smith Funeral Home upon the retirement of longtime owner/director Jim Smith and his wife/business partner, Cindy Smith.
It was a day for which Payne had been preparing for most of his life.
“I bought into the business— Musgrove-Merriott-Smith corporation — about six years ago, at which time, (funeral home owners/directors) Jim and Cindy (Smith) let everyone know they would be retiring, which they officially did on Sept. 30, 2013,” Payne said. “That date is especially significant, as it marked 43 years to the day that they started in the funeral business.”
Payne said he and those at the funeral home had wanted to make more of an announcement of the Smiths retirement, but they’ve just been “too busy” at the funeral home in the past month.
“We’ve had 35 or so funerals to do since Jim and Cindy left, so we’ve really been busy — we just haven’t had the chance to sit down and do anything (to recognize their retirement) the way we’d like to,” he said. “We plan to eventually though.”
Payne first went to work for Smith at the funeral home in 1994, while he was still a college student.
“When I started (at Musgrove-Merriott-Smith), this was just a part-time job — a way for me to get myself through college,” he said. “I started out attending Northeastern State University, but started working at the funeral home, so I transferred to Rogers State, and started going there, studying biology.”
Although his job at MMS started out as a means to an end, Payne soon discovered he enjoyed it and the people at the funeral home.
“In the beginning, I just did lawn car and maintenance, washed the cars, and helped out with visitations sometimes, but after a few years, I started actually helping out with the services and found out I enjoyed it,” he said. “It didn’t take long before I knew I wanted this to be my full-time career.”
After receiving his Associate’s Degree in Biology, Payne went on to study at the University of Central Oklahoma, from where he earned his degree in Mortuary Science in 1997, allowing him to become even more involved in operations at Musgrove-Merriott-Smith.
“Between Rogers State and the University of Central Oklahoma, I spent a year interning at Musgrove — that was required by the state for me to get my funeral license, and it was just kind of understood that I’d be here full-time after college — there was never any doubt in my mind that this was where I was going to be,” he said. “After UCO, I went to work here full-time and started my career in the business.”
While his education was important, Payne credits much of his success to his funeral home mentors Paul Merriott and Jim Smith.
“I learned something new almost every day from Paul and Jim — I can’t credit them enough with helping to shape my career,” he said. “Paul would always have good advice for me, and Jim would let me sort of ‘find my way’, to try new things, telling me that if they worked, keep doing them, and if they didn’t, to learn from it and to not do them again. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to learn about the business directly from two men who already knew it so well.”
With a month now under his belt as funeral home director, Payne said the transition from Smith’s leadership to his own has been a smooth one.
“Jim always made it known he’d be retiring and that he’d be turning the business over one day, so everyone knew this was just kind of how things were headed — there were no surprises, and it’s been a pretty smooth change-over, without any hiccups,” he said.
“Like I said, we’ve had a pretty busy month, but it’s been one without the kind of ‘hiccups’ that can happen sometimes. I’ve been getting ready for this for a long, long time.”
As comfortable as the transition has been for Payne, he does admit to feeling the increased responsibility.
“Really, I don’t feel much different as ‘the boss’ than I did before, but I do worry more about making sure that every one here has what they need to do they’re job — I think about that more,” he said, “and I do spend more working out the little details — the particulars — than I did before, but otherwise, I don’t feel all that much different here than before.”
Payne added he’s fortunate to be surrounded by a competent staff, all of whom have been encouraging and supportive of his rise to the position of director at the funeral home, now MMS-Payne Funeral Home & Cremation Service.
“Really, we’ve been so busy, I guess it hasn’t sunk in yet — it just feels like we’re just doing business as usual, which we are,” he said.
“Jim checks in and talks to me regularly so in a way, it’s like he’s still here, but now it’s me who’s ‘minding the store’.”
Although Payne is still on the first few pages of this chapter of his life, he says he’s very, very thankful for the opportunities he’s been given and he hopes to eventually give someone else the chances he’s had.
“I wouldn’t be as successful as I have been without Paul and the Smiths, no doubt — they’ve been so good to me,” he said. “Down the road, I hope to be able to take someone under my wing and treat them as well as I’ve been treated here.”
Payne and his wife Brandi live in Claremore. The couple has three children, Annie Kate, six, Alivia, three, and Allie, four months.
The couple currently attends church at First United Methodist Church in Claremore.