ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tom Antram took the test in the eighth grade and quickly forgot about it.
The exam — designed to determine what career might best suit each student — indicated that Antram may have a future as a teacher, a TV anchor or a funeral director.
The first two options made sense. As a teenage football player in Alamogordo, Antram expected to go into teaching/coaching.
And when a dispiriting student-teaching gig in college prompted him to rethink that, he began studying communications at University of New Mexico.
“I thought maybe I could be a sportscaster on TV because I loved sports,” Antram recalls in his smooth, broadcast-worthy voice. “That’s where I was heading when I got to working with French.”
That would be the French funeral home near UNM.
At the time, Antram says, his interest in the French job was pretty simple: free rent. If he’d answer the funeral home’s phone calls overnight, he could live in the on-site studio apartment for free. As a young newlywed worried about covering tuition payments for himself and his wife, it sounded like a great deal.
But it didn’t feel like a stepping stone of any sort. He was not actively pursuing career option No. 3.
“I did not know a lot about funeral service and had no grand plans of going into funeral service when I applied for it,” he says.
More than 20 years later, though, he’s still in the business. In fact, he’s worked his way up the ladder at the 106-year-old French Family of Companies and is now president and CEO.
It’s a career perhaps only the midschool test could have predicted.
“We have so many people who say ‘I knew I wanted to be a funeral director when I was 10 years old,’ and I think ‘Gosh, I never had that ‘a-ha’ moment that young in my life,’ but I’m fortunate I found it as an early 20-something,” says Antram, who worked his way through nearly every job in the business, including embalmer, funeral director and general manager. “It’s been a wonderful career and a wonderful way to have an impact on people’s lives.”
Antram assumed he’d make his impact as a coach, just like his football coach at Alamogordo High School, Joe Bryant, did for him.
Antram still remembers “like it was yesterday” walking into the team locker room as a scrawny sophomore and accidentally overhearing an assistant coach tell Bryant to cut “that Antram kid” loose.
Antram, the youngest of eight children, adored football but was kept from playing until high school because his parents thought he was too small to compete. By the time he joined, he was way behind his peers, most of whom had been playing together in youth leagues for years. He didn’t know the plays and would sometimes just “run around like an idiot” on the field.
But that day in the locker room, Bryant — unaware Antram was within earshot — indicated that the inexperienced sophomore deserved a shot.
“Joe Bryant said ‘Oh, hell, give the kid a chance, he’s just figuring things out,'” Antram recalls, adding that it stoked his confidence and his competitive spirit.
By the time he was a senior, he was playing tight end and linebacker well enough to earn All-District honors.
“(Bryant) was one of those guys that spotted something in us as young men and helped us foster that,” says Antram, noting that he applies the same approach in his professional life.
“It’s the same thing in business: You need to let employees know that you believe in them.”
In addition to overseeing the 130-employee French operation, Antram stays busy with his two teenage daughters and multiple nonprofit organizations.
The Ronald McDonald House is among the causes closest to his heart due to his family’s own experience with the organization.
The Antrams stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia while their younger daughter, Aubrey, then 7, underwent spinal surgery for scoliosis at Shriners Hospital.
Surprised when a local nurse referred them to the house — “we said we’re not destitute,” Antram recalls — the family found that the home offered both convenience and the comfort of knowing everyone there was going through something similar.
“On the flight back (Aubrey) said ‘Do we have a Ronald McDonald House in Albuquerque?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, we’ll find out,’ and she said we ought to help them,” Antram says.
The family started volunteering at the local house on Sundays and Antram joined the board of directors about a year later. He’s also inspired French to get involved: The company sponsors a monthly dinner at the house, providing the food and the volunteers to cook it.
Q: Has working in this field affected your views on dying?
A: Certainly. As you look at it you’re very aware of your own mortality and of those around you. You kind of have a perspective that you have to enjoy it. Life’s too short. I’ve made a point with my daughters that I’m going to be there for most things I can be there for. … I always work it out that we have dinner together every night. If there’s an event on the weekend, I’m going to be there. You take that kind of perspective — it’s not unlike many of us as parents — but you take that perspective because you see nothing is guaranteed. We don’t know if we’re going to be here tomorrow or not.
Q: Describe yourself as a boss.
A: I would say that as a boss, most people would say that I’m fair, I do not micromanage. I have high expectations but I trust that you’ll follow through with them. On the downside, I can become easily distracted and so I might be really gigged out about something today and next week I might change my mind.
Q: What’s the biggest risk you ever took?
A: I think probably the biggest risk was getting married young. I met my wife when I was 19 and fell head over heels and decided in short order I was going to marry her, but I was paying for my own education and working full-time. I borrowed the money from my dad to buy her ring and do all those things. … I bought the ring and held onto it for a year until I could pay him back, and then I asked her. I think that was a big leap for both of us. … I told her (recently) ‘I’m most grateful that you had faith and trust in a 20-year-old — at that time not completely educated and not really certain where I was going to — just trust that we could make a life together, and we made it together.’ To me it was a leap of faith. We both stepped out of our comfort zones, but it was the best risk I can ever imagine making, and I would do it again tomorrow.
Q: As one of eight children did you ever want to have eight children of your own?
A: No, no. (Laughs) Not quite. It’s a wonderful thing — there’s nothing like having a large family and all that chaos that ensues around it — but I never had any grand desire to have that many kids.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I spend a lot of time with my family. We hike frequently. We have a book of hikes in the Sandias and any free weekend we pull the book out and plan a hike. Our summer vacations revolve around outdoor things like that — going to Zion or Bryce Canyon or Yellowstone or Glacier National Park. That’s my complete outlet. If I get out of the city even just a little bit, La Luz Trail even, where I can’t see anything, that’s kind of my zone.