Perry Eddleman wasn't your typical mortician.
The late owner of Perry's Funeral Chapel, rather than being death-obsessed or dark, was remembered this week by friends and family as someone who always had a smile on his face, loved life and adored the outdoors.
"How would I describe Perry? Compassionate and caring," his wife, Alicia Eddleman, said. "Perry was just a ray of sunshine. He had a heart of gold. I think people knew that. He cared way beyond what we're called to do in this business."
Originally from Corpus Christi, Texas, Perry's family moved throughout south Texas during his childhood, his sister Marilyn Eddleman said, but Corpus Christi is where he established his first friendships.
"He loved animals. His first dog was like half-coyote. Her name was Tinker. He loved that damn dog. We've got pictures of him with her puppies," Marilyn said.
He was a standout athlete, even as he transferred between schools throughout his high school career. Marilyn said he particularly excelled in football and track in his high school years.
"We moved to Winnsboro, Louisiana, he went his senior year there and graduated with the Class of '81. He was also a dang football legend there," she said. "Perry was a badass. I don't know how else to say it. Super fast; any sport Perry picked up, he excelled in. He was the best athlete ever."
While attending high school in Louisiana, Perry became close friends with Billy Shelton, who recalled weekends hunting, fishing and frog gigging. It was through their trips to the swamp that Perry earned the nickname "Gator."
"Before the days of 'Swamp People' and conservation, all that good stuff – he loved to hunt, loved to fish – we used to frog hunt when we were in high school in northeast Louisiana. We would do this on all different bodies of water," Shelton said. "Now, when you're frog hunting, we were always ultimately after frogs, but from time to time, we encountered alligators."
Shelton said Perry made it a mission to catch an alligator, and eventually, he succeeded.
"Perry became enamored with wanting to catch alligators. So what's a good friend to do but put him in the front of the boat, in the line of fire with that alligator," he remembered. "And he did it. Perry caught a 4-foot, 3-and-a-half-foot alligator with his bare hands. We thought that was the greatest thing since sliced toast."
Gator secured, Perry, Shelton and a couple other friends continued their search for frogs, but a few hours later, when they came upon a second small alligator, Perry decided to go for another catch. This time, they couldn't reach the gator by boat, so Perry jumped out, waded through waist-deep water and, again, captured a 3-foot alligator.
"We had a 14-foot boat with four guys, two alligators and a sack full of frogs," Shelton laughed.
Some time later, while frog hunting in Monroe, Perry set his sights on a bigger alligator, but that adventure didn't go quite as well as the first one.
"These guys were big – 5- to 7-foot alligators... He attempted to vacate the boat, but this water was deep, and he didn't know it. He was up to his chest," Shelton said. "No sooner than his chest hit that water, he was right back on the boat."
Perry did catch another 3-foot alligator later that night, and from then on, he was known in that circle of friends as "Gator."
"He was just a great friend. He was always happy... He lived life fully," Shelton said. "We always had good times... I don't know that he ever had people he didn't like, honestly. He was just that kind of guy, and I don't know people that disliked him."
Marilyn said Perry studied at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, at that time known as Northeast Louisiana University, for a while before he attended mortician's school. She also became a funeral director, following in their father, Frank Eddleman's footsteps, she said.
"Perry was my idol, him and my dad," she said.
Dr. Tommy Lester, a mortician at Perry's Funeral Chapel, said his boss first worked for his father at the Hot Springs Funeral Home, which his father had founded. After that, Perry worked at Bailey Funeral Home.
"(His dad) told Perry he'd heard there was an opening in El Dorado, so Perry drove down to El Dorado from Houston, where he was going to mortuary school, and he changed into a suit in the phone booth and then he got a phone book out and started calling funeral homes. All he knew was that there was a job at one of them," Lester said.
Perry also worked for Young's Funeral Directors and Prescolite before, in 2003, he bought what was then the Rumph-Owers Funeral Home, known as the longest continually-running funeral home in the State of Arkansas. At the time, Perry called the purchase "a lifetime dream."
The first funeral at the newly-established mortuary was that of Perry's biological father, Allan Lockhart, who died at 62-years-old from a heart attack.
Lester said it was important to Perry to provide the community with professional funeral experiences, but he also emphasized accessibility.
"He was out for the little guy. You didn't have to be somebody, have a big name. He was out to help the average, ordinary person afford a decent burial," he said. "That's the way he started and that's the way we've kept it. It's an everyman's place, a working man's funeral home."
Alicia said Perry loved everyone he met.
"Everybody he came in contact with instantly was family," she said. "Perry ran his business the way he ran it because he felt like sometimes the suits were intimidating and we needed to just be regular people. His business was built around grieving, rather than business."
Howard Skinner, a friend of 30-plus years, said Perry never met a stranger.
"He was a servant for El Dorado. He had a servant's heart, just cared about people. He never had a bad day, never met a person he didn't like, and you couldn't help but to like Perry," Skinner said. "But tough – he was unbelievably tough... He was just an unbelievably good guy."
Outside of work, Perry volunteered annually to ring the bell in the Salvation Army's Christmas-time Red Kettle fundraising campaign, Alicia said. He also loved to play racquetball, she and Marilyn said.
"He hadn't touched a racquet since high school and he ended up being ranked third in the State of Arkansas," Marilyn said.
Skinner was one of Perry's hunting buddies. They were preparing for their twice-annual fishing trip to south Louisiana, which was coming up in about two weeks, Skinner said.
"We call it our Redfish Crew; Perry was a permanent part of our Redfish Crew," he said. "He loved being down there on the water, on the coast. It didn't matter how high the waves were – he wasn't scared."
He, too, saw Perry catch an alligator on at least one occasion. Another time, Skinner said, Perry caught a kingsnake, and to ensure rats didn't infest the funeral home, he let it go right outside the building on Oak Street.
"Well, a couple weeks after he caught it, he heard a big commotion over there at the police station -- the snake had gotten into the police station! He never told them he was the one that brought the snake up there," Skinner laughed. "He wasn't scared of anything like that."
Perry and Alicia were wed on New Years Eve, 2022. They'd known each other for six years by the time they got married; Alicia said at their first meeting, she never would have been able to guess how their relationship would flourish.
"I was an embalmer for a larger firm, and our firm had picked up a decedent for Perry. It was in Louisiana, the firm I worked for, and they had told me that a funeral home from Arkansas was coming to get the lady," she said. "He opened the door and looked at me and said 'Oh. You're the embalmer?' And that opened up a whole rant about the struggle for women in the funeral business."
Perry passed away on Sunday, March 5, at 61-years-old. In addition to Alicia and Marilyn, he is also survived by his son, Blake Lee Eddleman; daughter, Morgan Bailey Eddleman; mother, Jenny Bone; sisters Cara Lakey and Dori Coleman; and step-children Caleb Foret, Cole Foret, Landon Foret, Haley Smith and Allison Sharp, as well as his grandson via Caleb Foret, Cullen Foret.
Alicia said he was eagerly awaiting the October birth of his second grandchild at the time of his passing.
Lester said anytime Perry's children came up, his pride was obvious.
"He went and moved his daughter Morgan recently. He was real, real proud of Morgan. She just got a promotion with this company she's working with in Dallas and he was so proud. He talked about it for days," he said. "He was real proud of Haley. She's in the military, went to Japan. He had a hand in her... He would brag on her – 'She's going to Japan!' – and she'd come by the office in her camo uniform and he'd just show her off."
Perry's family and friends all laughed through their tears as they shared stories about his life, particularly when it came to his outdoor adventures. He loved animals, and people. Alicia said he always told her that the moment he became numb to death, he was going to quit the funeral business.
That moment never came, but he had cut back on his hours by the time he passed away, and had been enjoying trips to the lake to fish over the past few months, Lester said.
"He was a fine man. He took me in," Lester said. "When you made him proud, he told you, and you could see it in his eyes... He had a big old heart of love. He'd brag on you and it made you feel good; he was the kind of guy you wanted to show out for, do your very best for."
Skinner said, "He loved being around people. (People should know) how much he cared – genuinely cared – about them, especially in the business he was in, being a funeral director, how much he really got to know them and their families. He was a common guy that just loved people. He loved people, loved being around people. He was always up for any adventure."
While he was an introvert at heart, Alicia said, he could and would talk to anyone.
"He was always serving others in some capacity," she said.
Added Marilyn, "He was funnier than Hell. He was so funny. He talked with his hands, told the best stories. He genuinely loved people, genuinely cared for people. He was just such a good guy."
A visitation was held yesterday at Perry's Funeral Chapel, and his funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at Murmill Baptist Church. A private family burial will follow. Family and friends are encouraged to send condolences at perrysfuneralchapels.com.