Spotlight, Ryan Mishler and Daniel Blevins: The monuments men

By Ralph Heibutzki - HP Correspondent Jul 28, 2015 - BENTON HARBOR

Ryan Mishler and Daniel Blevins help turn grief into history at St. Joe Monument Works.

BENTON HARBOR - When people need to commemorate a loved one, St. Joe Monument Works co-owners Ryan Mishler and Daniel Blevins are always ready to help - no matter when that initial phone call comes.

"It's a very unique job, because it's not just a job. It's your life," Mishler said. "If you don't shed a tear with a family, then you're not cut out for this, because that's what you deal with."

Blevins feels likewise, having grown up with a grandfather and father who were ministers. He sees his current profession as an extension of that background.

"It's not just another case. That's somebody's mom, somebody's dad, somebody's brother," he said.

The pair acquired St. Joe Monument Works, 1875 E. Napier Ave., in September 2013 from Bill and Genie Cooper, who had ran it since 1978. The company was founded in 1913.

They had considered buying another business, but quickly discarded that idea.

"We were so impressed with the skill level here, the history, what they'd (the Coopers) produced - it came from, 'just looking,' to a reality in 30 days," Blevins said.

"It's (Southwest Michigan) very similar to the communities we come from - they're smaller, close-knit communities," Mishler said. "We liked the Coopers and hit it off with them."

Mishler followed his father into a business that began in 1946. He took over in 1999, after returning from California, where he'd earned his degree in business administration.

Mishler, of Bremen, Ind., is well-known in northern Indiana, as he has served in the Indiana State Senate since being elected in 2004. He is a Republican.

Mishler is also president of Mishler Funeral Homes of Bremen and Milford, Ind., and Bremen Monument Co.

Mishler met Blevins in 2005.

"Daniel was my intern - we just really hit it off," Mishler said. "He was the first intern that had an interest in business questions, so we got into business together."

Blevins now owns several businesses, including Ligonier Monument Corp., in Indiana. He also is the founder/director of the Legacy Cremation and Remembrance Center, as well as owner of Yeager Funeral Home in Ligonier and Cutler Funeral Home and Cremation Center in LaPorte, Ind.

"Neither one of our companies were production facilities. We didn't have our own production capability," Blevins said.

Now that they have the means of production, Blevins can tell customers: "If you can dream it, we can build it."

Transparency is a big part of making those dreams happen.

"We don't push anything on people," Blevins said. "If they want a simple gray headstone, that's what we're going to do. If they want a four-leaf clover, we've got a four-leaf clover. We try to figure out what they want and give them the best version of that."

That effort begins with some gentle questioning to learn more about the deceased person's interests or background.

"You have to ask questions, because you're not doing the obituary, so you're catching up," Mishler said. "You try to say, 'Did Mary like to do this? Did Mary like to do that?'

Angels, Bible verses, crosses and portraits rank among the most requested items.

Still other customers opt for comic inscriptions or phrases, such as: "If you didn't come to see me when I was alive, why are you visiting me now?"

Lighthouse etchings are also popular, which fits Southwest Michigan's maritime roots, Mishler said.

More people are also seeking headstones for pets, as well as different versions of standard shapes - such as a heart set at an angle - and benches.

"Benches are big now. When I first started, we didn't ever do benches," Mishler said.

Delivery times range from three to four weeks - if a customer picks a headstone that's in stock - to a few months, depending on the monument's color, shape, size and type.

Once the stone arrives, Creative Arts Director Antoine Gipson brings the customer's vision to life - which he first sketches on paper, and etches onto the stone.

"He (Gipson) starts with some rough lines, and goes in with a hand sandblaster," Blevins said. "This is all done by hand. This isn't computer-generated."

For bigger projects, the letters are stenciled and then sandblasted onto the stone inside a large unit set up for that purpose - which is a painstaking job for Aaron Ziegert, who handles that work.

"One mess up, and the whole stone's gone. Once the granite comes off, it's done," Blevins said.

Like any industry, trends come and go, though Blevins and Mishler say they haven't taken a major hit from customers choosing cremation vs. a traditional funeral and gravestone.

For example, Blevins estimates that 50 percent of customers in LaPorte County, Ind. choose cremation, vs. 25 percent in Ligonier.

"It's not as common as you think. A lot of times, folks want to be buried and families still want a place to remember," he said.

Mishler has also seen a different trend taking hold.

"I put monuments on empty graves, just because they (family members) want a place to go, to memorialize (the deceased person)," he said.

For Blevins and Mishler, the funeral business is a family affair. When they took over St. Joe Monument Works, Mishler's fiancée redesigned the showroom - and both men routinely bring their boys to work with them.

"You can look at it as a business, a profession, or a ministry - but, it's all three," Blevins said. "If you look at it as a ministry first, the other (aspects) will come."

The ministerial aspect is never far from Blevins' mind.

"This past winter, I got a call - a 4-year-old drowned in a bathtub. I went to the scene myself," Blevins said. "I have a 4-year-old, and it makes you hold that 4-year-old (closer). It makes you rethink everything on a regular basis."

Blevins calls on his pastoral upbringing to deal with such tragedies emotionally, and help others during their loss, as well.

"I'd say that's one of the gifts, actually, because a lot of people never think about their end, and we're reminded of it every day," he said.

Mishler collects his reminders in a box filled with every note and card that he's received over the years.

"I remember my first card," Mishler said. "I remember going home to my dad: 'I got a card from the family, thanking me for everything.' He looked at me, and said, 'Ryan, that's what it's all about.'"

Name: Daniel Blevins

Job: Co-owner, St. Joe Monument Works

Town: Ligonier, Ind.

Fun fact: He owns several other mortuary-related businesses in Indiana. He got into business with Mishler after interning for him in 2005.

Name: Ryan Mishler

Job: Co-owner, St. Joe Monument Works

Town: Bremen, Ind.

Fun fact: Mishler, a Republican, has been an Indiana state senator since 2004. His father was former Indiana state Rep. Gregory E. Mishler. Ryan Mishler also operates other mortuary-related businesses in Indiana.

(See orginal story here)