Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — In many ways, Steven Risch defied the stereotype of a successful businessman whose career is in sales.
He was serious and sober. He admired the tried and true and avoided gimmicks. If he had sold time-share units or used cars, maybe he would not have had a home in Causeway Isles or a boat on the lift.
But Mr. Risch sold caskets, and he did it well. In a business with no room for mistakes, he reassured with quietness and reliability.
Mr. Risch, who owned J.R. Distributors, died April 12, of pancreatic cancer. He was 59.
"He always greeted you with a warm and friendly smile and treated you like a friend," said John McQueen, the president and chief executive of Anderson-McQueen Family Tribute Centers. "We considered him to be one, too. He will be missed by the funeral industry."
At a time when most people choose cremation and you can buy a casket from Walmart, Mr. Risch stuck with principles he had learned from his father, who in the early 1960s started the family business supplying funeral homes with caskets.
"If someone needed a casket today, we would go across the state with one casket, because that's the kind of service they gave," said Kathy Risch, his wife.
He felt the same way about personalized caskets, and had been known to change out the lining at a customer's request. At least one Florida Gator fan found eternal rest in an orange and blue casket.
Mr. Risch was born in Connersville, Ind., and moved to St. Petersburg with his family two years later. He graduated from what are now known as St. Petersburg Catholic High School and St. Petersburg College, then worked for Red Lobster restaurants and delivered caskets for Bert Risch, his father.
He married Kathy Armendinger in 1974, the same year J.R. Distributors opened its doors. The warehouse receives shipments of caskets, which are then polished and inspected before being loaded into company trucks for delivery seven days a week.
Often, Mr. Risch and his wife delivered caskets personally across Florida. After they had unloaded their cargo, they might hit the beach on the Atlantic side, or swing by Cedar Key to pick up clams.
"It's almost like we had many little vacations just delivering caskets," his wife said.
Mr. Risch also enjoyed helping neighbors with their backyard projects and getting his wife to jump into their 20-foot boat to watch the sunset.
He still delivered caskets after doctors found the cancer late in 2010. But Kathy Risch did most of the driving as time went on.
Hundreds of mourners, including many in the funeral business, turned out Monday for his Mass at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle. Mr. Risch was buried in a brown suit, in a solid mahogany casket with white velvet lining — the top of the line.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.