For over two decades, Charlie Rooks, Oglala Lakota, has helped ease bereavement pain through dignified, caring and compassionate post-death services for area families and their loved ones at several funeral home franchise locations. In the process, Rooks has built a solid, respectable – and respectful – reputation as a premier funeral chapel director.
RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– “A special place for our oyate to celebrate life.” That is the comforting guiding force, as well as stated mantra, behind both Rooks Funeral Chapel of Mission and Edstrom & Rooks Funeral Services at Serenity Springs of Rapid City. Charlie Rooks is the director and, along with his wife, Rose, owner of both funeral homes. Dwight and JoAnn Edstrom are co-owners of Serenity Springs. Charlie and Rose also maintain residences in Mission, situated on the Rosebud Reservation, and Rapid City. Rooks, 56, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, has been in the business of preparing the deceased for their Spirit World journeys for 25 years now. His quiet success as a Lakota entrepreneur is perhaps a most fitting complement to his humble affability – or vice versa. “I was the original owner of Sioux Funeral Home in Pine Ridge, which I established in 1987,” he said. Just prior to opening the mortuary on the reservation, Rooks said he was an insurance agent who “did very well with that in the Pine Ridge community.” In reflecting on the catalyst for his career change, Rooks said, “My father and I were talking one day, and the idea for a funeral home came up … . The idea had a lot of merit to it. I did some research in terms of the schooling involved, and I already had a degree in criminal justice – I realized it wouldn’t take that much more education to become a funeral director.” Rooks said he enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s mortuary science program at Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1986 to finalize his career move in one short year. “During that time, my father and mother worked (at) the funeral facility in Pine Ridge,” he said. “Back then, the tribe was very supportive and helped provide a location they felt would be the best place, the most practical place, for a funeral home there in Pine Ridge, which was the old hospital.” Upon graduation from the Twin Cities’ U of M, Rooks assumed ownership of Sioux Funeral Home and ran it with the help of his father. Under his direction as a member of the OST, and along with family support, Rooks said the funeral home was well received by the reservation’s community. In 1988, his brother, James Rooks, joined the emergent family business, ending up a mainstay until his passing in 2009. “And that was about the time I felt like I needed to take a break from the funeral services, so I sold (Sioux Funeral Home) to a gentleman from Mobridge, him and his family,” said Rooks. Toward the end of Rooks’ 22-year tenure at Sioux Funeral Home, he opened what was actually his third – and possibly biggest – venture, Rapid City’s Serenity Springs Funeral Chapel, in 2004. “I actually started another funeral home, too, which was Rooks & Kirk Funeral Home,” he said. Established around 1998 with fellow mortician Tim Kirk as his junior partner, Rooks said he felt that Rapid City, with its burgeoning population, needed another funeral home. “But after a year, I got busy with other things, and we sold that to the Pioneer Corporation in Sioux Falls,” Rooks said. “And then Tim came on to manage it, and it continued on very successfully in Rapid City – it’s doing very well on the west side of town.” Rooks said the Mission funeral home was part of the original dream for both him and his father – a dream that was inclusive of the people of the Rosebud Reservation. “But over the years, Pine Ridge was such a heavy caseload, and it was just my brother and I, and I just didn’t feel like I had the means to build it and see it through. But a year ago, I felt that the time was right to establish a funeral home (on the Rosebud Reservation).” In January of last year, Rooks presented his funeral home proposal to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Council and was met with open arms, though the entire process took a little time. “Thanks to (the RST Council), the funeral home opened in September of 2011. And like the people of Pine Ridge, the Sicangu have been very supportive in welcoming us,” he said. And also like the people of Pine Ridge, said Rooks, the people of Rosebud like the idea of having a Lakota-owned funeral home to serve them and their loved ones. “They can now call upon one of their own in taking care of their own – and I consider that a great honor,” he added. Assisting Rooks in providing services at the funeral chapel in Mission is his nephew, Paul Rooks. Rooks’ mother made her own trip to the Spirit World six years ago, and his father, long since retired from the family-infused trade, is a nonagenarian. “And I have to give credit where credit is due,” he said. “My parents certainly were a key, or essential, to the success of the funeral home there in Pine Ridge and supporting me in my endeavors. They were instrumental in giving me a basic understanding of business principles.” Students can learn all kinds of things about business in college, according to Rooks. But “you generally learn real business from others in business,” he said. The business of being a mortician and working with the dead, however, is something Rooks never actually dreamed he’d be doing before he started doing it. “When I was growing up, I was the one who – I guess I watched too many scary movies – and my dad had a sense of humor, and he’d be trying to trick us about scary things,” he said with a chuckle. “And I felt like I had developed a phobia of being afraid of the dark, so this is the last thing I ever thought I’d be doing – and that’s the irony involved.” “It’s like a calling from heaven for a kid who was afraid of the dark; it’s like the good Lord said, ‘Well, this is what you’re going to do now’,” Rooks said with an infectious laugh. In all seriousness, Rooks said he does feel like his work as a funeral home director is truly a calling in life. “I do believe this is what the good Lord had in mind for me to do, and it’s a very rewarding experience. The hundreds and hundreds of families over the years who have given me the privilege of serving them is incredibly rewarding.” Rooks’ advice for young Native American entrepreneurs is simple: Follow your dreams. “I got a degree in criminal justice (in 1980), and I thought that was the path I was supposed to take. I became a police officer and tried those shoes on for a while, realized that they weren’t that comfortable, and I got into food service and was the manager of the food service at (a university) for a while, and those shoes didn’t really fit. I tried insurance, and that was good. I enjoyed the people. I came across funeral service, something I never ever thought I would do.” Rooks continued, “The lesson for me was, try different things and sometimes they will work, sometimes they don’t. The important thing is if each experience can lead you to a better understanding of what you would like to do, and it will hone your skills, it will form your outlook on life. Every experience can be something, though it might be negative in some way, if you can learn from it, then move on to something better than that experience – that’s the lesson in life.” Serving his fellow man and tribal members as a funeral director is the only thing Rooks said he can imagine doing at this point in his life. “There are challenges to every profession, and this has its challenges, too,” he said. “But, overall, when I wake up, it’s something I look forward to doing. And when I go to bed at night, it’s something I feel good about doing.” According to Rooks, the real test of a job’s value and likeability for an individual rests on whether or not the job is something that individual would enjoy doing on vacation. “And I wouldn’t mind having to work on vacation if called upon to do it,” he said with a laugh. “I feel this is a vocation I’m dedicated to, and I feel good about that.” Despite the impoverished economic conditions that persist on South Dakota’s reservations, Rooks still sees business opportunities, especially for young Native entrepreneurs. “As far as reservations go, there are opportunities. From a business standpoint, there are many more opportunities for businesses on the reservation. My father used to say, ‘You name it, we need it,’ because there are so few – for whatever reason – business opportunities that are developed. It is a ripe environment for people to go off and get educated and come back. That’s been an objective for the education systems for decades now, for young people to help themselves, first and foremost, their families and their communities.” “Over the decades, great strides have been made,” Rooks said. “Things are improving in the economy. There’s always room for improvement, but I think, by and large, great strides have been made in the last several years.” Rooks is – and continues to be – very grateful to everyone who has supported his mortuaries over the years. He modestly realizes how invaluable he is to his Lakota brethren in their times of loss, grief and mourning. “I have lots of people to thank and that I’ve been grateful to over the years, especially in the beginning there, starting out, and them supporting (my family and business partners) – lots of friends and relatives in the community, tribal leaders, tribal officials are just very happy they can now have their loved ones taken care of at home. That is very important. That was a driving objective to what we wanted to do. They helped make that happen.” Rooks said his wife, Rose, is also very supportive of him. “When I was in school, she was the backbone of everything because we had four children to take care of,” he said. “I’m kind of a dreamer. If I had my brothers, I would have a Lakota-owned funeral home on every reservation throughout the United States because of the special customs and burials that Native Americans enjoy. Not that other funeral homes aren’t mindful of those (customs and burials), it’s just that when you have a tribal member attentive to those things, it’s something that other Natives actually appreciate.” (Contact Jesse Abernathy at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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