Clyde Orlando Swilley | 1922-2009

Clyde Swilley, Tampa funeral home founder, dies at 87

LOWRY PARK — Clyde Swilley grew up on his family farm during the Depression. It taught him one valuable lesson.

He hated farming.

"He knew from a very early age that he didn't want to be a farmer," said his daughter, Beth Gonzalez. "He said he'd do anything but he would never work on a farm."

He probably never imagined that he'd find his calling in the funeral business. For 45 years, Mr. Swilley owned and operated one of Tampa's most successful funeral homes. He sold Swilley Funeral Home about five years ago, but the new owner has kept the name.

Mr. Swilley passed away Nov. 8 after a long illness. He was 87.

He had come to Tampa from his native Chiefland in the early 1940s to attend Tampa Business College. He took an entry-level job at a funeral home to meet expenses while he was in school.

He quickly discovered that he enjoyed the work and that he was good at it.

"For him, it was all about service," his daughter said. "He loved that he could help people at a tragic time in their lives."

After a stint in the Navy during World War II, Mr. Swilley returned to Tampa. One evening at a restaurant, he ran into a young woman named Jeanne whom he had met casually seven years earlier. They married a few months later and remained together until she died in 1996.

Mr. Swilley attended mortuary school in Cincinnati, then came back to Tampa. He worked for several funeral homes before he opened Swilley Funeral Home in 1959.

Other funeral homes, especially one owned by a big corporation, might have made a lot more money. And Mr. Swilley could have pocketed a small fortune by selling to one of those corporations, which often offered to buy his business. But Mr. Swilley thought that funeral homes should be run by families, not corporations.

"He didn't like the corporate funeral homes," Gonzalez said. "For him, it was all about helping the everyday person. If someone didn't have the money to pay for a funeral, he'd make sure they got a funeral anyway. If they had the money but didn't pay him, he'd never say anything bad about them. He'd just let it go."

On one occasion, she said, Mr. Swilley helped dig a grave for the baby of an impoverished couple.

He took his work seriously, but in private moments he'd show he had a sense of humor about it.

"He used to tell us girls, 'Lie down and I'll put your makeup on,' " Gonzalez said.

Besides his work and his family, Mr. Swilley's lifelong passions were for sports and for God.

He loved all sports, but especially football, and was an avid follower of every Tampa professional and collegiate team, and of the University of Florida Gators.

"You'd walk in the house and he'd have two TVs on, a radio in his ear and he'd be reading the paper," his daughter said. "And it was all sports."

He kept a Bible by his bed and read it every night, without fail. At the end of each meal, and at the end of every day, he would say, "God is good, all the time."

In the past few months, as his health was failing, Mr. Swilley had come to live with Gonzalez and her family. His second wife, Lynne, was also in poor health and had gone to live with her daughter in Sun City Center.

One night his daughter heard him tapping loudly and repeatedly on the wooden frame of his bed, something he had never done before. The next morning she discovered that he had passed away. Then she realized what the noise she heard was:

"He was knocking on heaven's door."

Besides his wife and daughter Beth, Mr. Swilley is survived by daughters Pamela Jeanne Chillura and Anne O' Neill, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

Clyde Swilley, Tampa funeral home founder, dies at 87 11/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 19, 2009 3:30am]

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