The secret to the success of Rockland funeral director Walker Hutchins is that he listens.

He does not follow some script they taught him in school or rely on tired cliches.

"I think the most important thing is to just be there," he said. "The words will come. And what I try to keep reminding myself is, 'Keep your mouth shut, Walker, and listen.'"

Hutchins, the owner of Burpee, Carpenter & Hutchins Funeral Home on Limerock Street, is an institution in the community. He was unanimously selected by our committee as the winner of this year's Courier Publications Golden Weather Vane Award.

About a decade ago, the community was given a glimpse of what makes Hutchins unique. The Camden Opera House was packed with friends and family to celebrate the life of Michael Libby, who had tragically died at the age of 22 in a snowmobile crash. As people were giving condolences to Libby's parents in front of the opera house, some of Libby's friends "burned rubber" in the street as a tribute.

It was in this scene that Hutchins got behind the wheel of the hearse.

"I will never forget the feeling," Hutchins said. "It literally felt to me as though Michael was tapping me on the shoulder, saying, 'Touch it, Hutch,' and as I dropped it into gear, I touched it."

The hearse burned rubber as he pulled out onto the street.

Michael's father, David Libby, of St. George, said he had just placed his son's coffin in the hearse and was unsure he could survive the crushing weight of his grief when he saw and heard the display in the street. Somehow, it offered him a moment of reprieve.

"When you are in the worst possible place you could be, Walker handles it in a way that makes it bearable," Libby said.

Asked if this is what he was taught in mortuary school, Hutchins said, "You must be kidding! The minute I did, I said, 'Lord have mercy, what have you done?' I couldn't believe that I had done that. And yet, in retrospect, for Dave's son, it was fitting. It really was."

Hutchins was among those who received tickets from Camden police and he paid the ticket, though he said several local attorneys offered to defend him in court.

"I said, 'I did it, why take it to court?'"

Hutchins listens to those he works with and, as a man of faith, he listens to another voice as well. The son of a Baptist minister, he lived in several communities in Maine when he was growing up, including Portland and Bridgewater, in Aroostook County.

"From the time I was old enough to speak, people would say, 'What are you going to do, little boy, when you grow up?' and I would say, 'I'm going to be a funeral director.' And they would say, 'Huh? What's the matter with you, kid?'"

He noted that from an early age he was familiar with the business, because his mother's cousin was a funeral director.

"I firmly believe that I was as called to be a funeral director as my father was called to be a pastor," he said.

The idea is more specific than simply saying what you want to do for a living. Many Christians believe a pastor receives a calling from God to do work in the ministry.

Hutchins studied at Mortuary Arts School in Boston with his friend Scott Kinne. He worked in Portland for a few years and then went to Florida. Kinne, meanwhile, owned the Strong Funeral Home in Damariscotta.

Kinne called Hutchins in Florida and asked him to come back to Maine to buy the Burpee funeral home with him.

Hutchins thought the plan was "nuts." He was just getting over a long illness and was out of money, and the funeral home was in need of repairs.

Kinne persisted and Hutchins came to Rockland in 1983 along with his wife, Ann.

He spent the first few years serving as a carpenter, fixing the building. By the end of the '90s, he had bought Kinne out of the business. In 2000 he purchased the Carpenter Funeral Home, which had been taken over by a corporation out of Texas after Melvin Carpenter died in 1996.

Hutchins stresses the value of local ownership.

"Local funeral home owners are involved in the communities where they live," he told VillageSoup in 2001. "We deal with people that are our personal friends and neighbors every day — there's a big difference when you're dealing with someone you know versus just another number."

He said the most difficult part of the job is the need to be available to respond to a death in the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Hutchins and his family actually live in the funeral home on Limerock Street.

"It is not unusual to get a call at midnight, and you're not back in bed until two days later," he said. "You catch a cat nap and keep going."

Nights, weekends, holidays, family visits and vacations are all subject to this absolute necessity of the job. Right now, Hutchins and his daughter, J'Anna Hutchins Hedrich, are the only two licensed funeral directors in the business (they are seeking another), so they are the ones on call.

"Your family has to be very, very understanding," he said.

The business provides numerous services, which have only expanded in scope over the years. Now, in addition to making funeral arrangements, preparing the body, ordering caskets and filling out the lengthy paperwork required for each death, the business has staff creating photo slide shows to be played at the funerals, editing videos of the funerals themselves and writing obituaries. All of this has to be done by seven full-time staff members and four part-time employees.

Hutchins stressed that this is a team effort and that he is only a part of that team.

Every new family that he works with is dealing with a unique set of circumstances. In some cases he works with two or three family members. At other times, as many as 25 people pack the conference room at the home, all contributing ideas. In some cases the survivors get along with each other, while at other times the families are divided by long-held resentments. Some families display raw emotions, while others are more reserved.

Hutchins makes first contact sometimes at homes and nursing homes. He goes out to the scenes of crashes and fatal fires.

"I've walked into some pretty tragic circumstances with many families," he said. "And sometimes I'll walk in and simply put my arms around a grieving father and say, 'I don't know how, but we're going to help you through this.'"

"When Walker's talking to you, it's like you're the most important person or family in the world," Libby said. "And he makes everybody feel that way."

After 34 years in this community, where he raised his own children, he knows many of the people he will bury.

"When Becky Harjula died, that stopped me in my tracks," he said.

Harjula died at the age of 54 in 2013. She was well known in the community as an active member of the Owls Head Baptist Church, where Hutchins is also a member. She also worked at the Rockland high school.

Hutchins does not appear to close himself off from the pain and loss he encounters in his profession. Instead, he feels his faith gives him the power to love those he serves.

"Within the funeral profession, many people use the word 'closure.' I hate that. I hate it," he said. "There are some people who never have closure to the loss of a loved one, and if they do, I guess I kind of wonder how they accomplish that. My dad died 10 years ago. I don't want to close that book, Dan. I don't want to close him!"

As he listens, he gets to know what each family wants. With some, he is no more than an order-taker. There is no desire for interaction on their part, no opportunity for him to cut the ice. Far more often, there is a bond that develops between Hutchins, his team and the families who are his customers.

One story that has to be coaxed out of him involves a motorcycle club. It should be noted, before going further, that there are many different kinds of motorcycle clubs and no one should be judged simply on that basis.

In any case, he was working with a particular motorcycle club at a funeral when he learned about one of their traditions rather abruptly.

"I was standing at a graveside when they stepped up and started firing their guns into the grave," he said. Though this made him nervous, he said he just quietly stood there and no one was harmed. "They were satisfied."

"It is a little unnerving the first time around, but I can tell you now if I needed help and I needed a motorcycle escort for a funeral procession, I would call these guys. They are tremendous. …They would all give you the shirt off their back and help in any way that they could."

Hutchins has been married to his wife, Ann, for 42 years. They have two grown daughters, J'Anna Hutchins Hedrich, who has followed him into the family business, and Melissa Ellerd. He also has three grandchildren.

Over the years he has served in local organizations, including the Salvation Army Board, as church deacon and in Rotary Club. He is also known for offering the invocation at Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce events.

"Respect comes to mind," said Chamber Executive Director Thomas Peaco. "Everyone has the utmost respect for him. He is always professional, always willing and ready to do what is needed for Rockland and the surrounding area. He is an institution here. This recognition is overdue, a chance for the community to let him know how we feel about him."

The Rev. Wayne Sawyer of Thomaston Baptist Church called Hutchins extraordinarily compassionate. He said he has watched Hutchins build his business for 30-plus years through hard work and his talent for remembering people's family connections. He noted Hutchins is always prepared for a minister who is coming to do a funeral service.

On Feb. 4, Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison presented an award to Hutchins during the Sheriff’s Office annual banquet at The Landings restaurant in Rockland.

Chief Deputy Timothy Carroll said, “We wanted to recognize a person that we, unfortunately, see during troubling times in our professions. There is no better man, in his profession, than Walker Hutchins. When times are at their worst, Walker has a calming effect for all involved. I can speak for us in law enforcement, that even we feel better and know that things are going to be OK when Walker shows up on scene. This community is very fortunate to have someone like Walker in it.”

"When he comes and shakes your hand, you can feel a genuine warmth, that he wants to comfort you," Dennison said.

Courier Publications Publisher Bryan Gess presented the second annual Golden Weather Vane Award to Hutchins April 19 at the funeral home on Limerock Street.

Disclosure: David Libby, who is quoted in this story, works as advertising director for Courier Publications.

Daniel Dunkle can be reached at or 594-4401 ext. 122. Follow him on Twitter @DanDunkle.