Gretchen B. Waples, 97, funeral director

GretchenB. Waples
GretchenB. Waples
Posted: February 17, 2011

Gretchen Branche Waples, 97, a funeral director and leader in Camden's African American community, died Tuesday, Feb. 1, in the Grace Healthcare of Phoenix nursing home. She had been living in Phoenix with her son, Arthur A. Waples Jr., since 2004.

In the 1930s, Mrs. Waples was pursuing a career as a coloratura soprano when she met Arthur A. Waples, a mortician, at her great-aunt's church in Burlington.

They married, and she gave up singing to help her husband run his funeral homes in Camden and Burlington. She graduated from Eckels College of Mortuary Science in Philadelphia and took over the business in the 1960s after her husband died. She ran both funeral homes until the 1980s and continued to operate Waples Funeral Home in Camden until retiring in 2001.

She had high standards and was very particular about the appearance of the deceased, her son said. "If a man did not have a proper suit for the viewing, she took one from my closet," he said.

Mrs. Waples was active with many organizations. She served for years as chair of the NAACP membership drive in Camden County and was a founding member of local chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Jack and Jill, and Links Inc., an association of professional African American women involved in community service. She served on the board of the Camden County Children's Shelter. If a group needed a meeting place, she often volunteered her funeral home.

She and her husband financially assisted young people starting businesses, and Mrs. Waples funded a scholarship in his name after he died.

Always stylishly dressed, she wore fur coats in the 1930s and 1940s, when few African American women owned such luxury items, said a cousin, Roberta Butler. In 1971, Jet magazine's society section referred to her as the "most glamorously attired" at an event at Club Harlem in Atlantic City.

"She was a leader in Negro society in Camden," Butler said, and supported cultural opportunities for young people. Mrs. Waples helped establish the Settlement Music School branch in Camden, sponsored musical programs at Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church, and organized an annual debutante ball for young African American women.

Active in Republican politics, Mrs. Waples ran unsuccessfully for the Assembly in 1967 and again in 1969, when she lost by 500 votes to future governor Jim Florio.

She was a delegate to the 1968 Republican National Convention, in Miami, and told an Inquirer reporter: "I'll admit I'm for Rockefeller. He's the only Republican candidate that can win. We certainly cannot suffer another Goldwater defeat this year."

After Richard Nixon won the nomination, Mrs. Waples campaigned for him and attended his inaugural ball.

Mrs. Waples grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., where her father was a minister and an educator. After earning a bachelor's degree in music at West Virginia State College, she moved to New York City.

Before her marriage, she was a lead soprano in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds revue on Broadway, sang with the Aeolian Opera Company, and studied voice with coaches to Marian Anderson and Lily Pons.

In addition to her son, Mrs. Waples is survived by two grandchildren.

A funeral was held Monday, Feb. 14, at Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church, Camden. Burial was in Odd Fellows Cemetery, Burlington.


Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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