The same horse-drawn hearse that has been used to convey community leaders, including Alex Madonna, to their final resting places will carry longtime San Luis Obispo mortician Eugene “Gene” Reis next week.
Reis, whose family owns Reis Family Mortuary and Crematory in San Luis Obispo, died of Parkinson’s disease on Friday afternoon at age 94, just shy of his 95th birthday, his daughter-in-law Wendy Reis said. He passed away at home surrounded by family members.
Gene Reis leaves behind his wife of 69 years, Irene Reis, as well as son Kirk Reis, daughter Luann Gregory and two granddaughters, Emily Reis and Heather Howard.
The great-grandson of Frank DeRosa, a whaler from the Azores who settled in Morro Bay, Gene Reis was born in a two-room shack behind the San Luis Obispo Carnegie Library, now home to the History Center of San Luis Obispo County. He spent most of his life within a 10-block radius of that location, graduating from San Luis Obispo High School in 1938, son Kirk Reis said.
After working as a bookkeeper at Security First National Bank, Gene Reis spent four years during World War II as a U.S. Army supply sergeant, serving in Africa, Italy and the former Yugoslavia. He entered the mortuary business as an apprentice in 1947.
Reis established his first funeral home, Reis Colonial Chapel, in January 1955, in the Nipomo Street building that currently houses the AIDS Support Network of San Luis Obispo County.
In 1969, he purchased a former dairy plant in San Luis Obispo. Reis Family Mortuary opened its doors at that location, 991 Nipomo St., in November 1970.
The business also has offices in Arroyo Grande, Cayucos and Cambria.
According to his son, Gene Reis worked in the funeral business steadily for 70 years, never officially retiring.
Kirk Reis said his father was never motivated by money.
“He always said that if he wanted to be a rich man, he’d be a lawyer, a politician or a car dealer,” said Kirk Reis, manager and co-owner of Reis Family Mortuary. “He did it because he liked the service he provided.”
The oldest standing member of Elks Lodge No. 322, which his father helped found, Gene Reis belonged to American Legion Post No. 66, Knights of Columbus, Native Sons of the Golden West, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Portuguese fraternal organization known as the IDES Society.
He served as grand marshal of San Luis Obispo’s La Fiesta Parade in 1977 and the Downtown SLO Holiday Parade in 2002.
Kirk Reis said his father will be remembered for his collection of antique buggies, cars, carriages and wagons, and the Good Ole Days Museum he established in 1975, which houses antique treasures amassed by five generations of the Reis family.
Visitation for Gene Reis will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. Feb. 11 at Reis Family Mortuary and Crematory, 991 Nipomo St. in San Luis Obispo, with a vigil service following at 6:30 p.m.
A funeral Mass will begin at 10 a.m. Feb. 12 at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, followed by a funeral procession to Old Mission Cemetery at 101 Bridge St. featuring the turn-of-the-century hearse Gene Reis purchased in 1966.
Kirk Reis said his father will be the last person to be carried in the hearse. “Then it’s going up on blocks,” he said.