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JCTN 150: 5 questions with John Birchette about life in Johnson City

W. Kenneth Medley II • May 19, 2019 at 6:34 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the latest in an occasional series of 5 Questions features regarding the people and families of Johnson City shaping the city’s past, present and future as we celebrate the city’s 150th birthday. Look for more in the series over the next several weeks.

Fast Five:

  • Cats or Dogs: Neither…fish, they’re easier.
  • Current Book: “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap” by Mehrsa Baradaran
  • Favorite Movie: “The Godfather,” by Martin Scorcese
  • Favorite Food: Steak, hands down.
  • Dinner with anyone: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Walking into Birchette Mortuary, one is overtaken with a consuming small-town feel. The business has been a fixture in Johnson City since 1959, with the Birchette family as key contributors to the community in both the faith and business sectors.

J.F. Birchette Jr. opened the funeral home not long after moving here to be pastor at Thankful Baptist Church. The pastor’s son, J. Fletcher Birchette III, continued to operate the funeral home after his father’s death in 1987.

Fletcher’s son, John, returned to Johnson City seven years ago to help manage the business as his father became ill. Fletcher died in 2017, and John stayed on as the funeral home’s third director.

He hopes that for the future, city officials continue the trend of expanding downtown while keeping that small-town feel.

What is your background?

Birchette: I am born and raised in Johnson City, graduate of Science Hill, University of Tennessee. After college I moved to Atlanta and worked in the corporate world for many years, but being born into a family of entrepreneurs, so I kind of did a few things on my own while in Atlanta for those years. I moved back to Johnson City about seven years ago due to my father’s health, the family business and due to the fact that I am an only child. I am just glad to be home and feel like it is where I am supposed to be.

What have been the changes that Johnson City has undergone that you have noticed?

Birchette: For me it has become much more diverse. There seems to be a lot more transplants in the years since I moved away; other than that, the people are the same, and I say that in a very positive way. It is a very friendly place and welcoming. I felt like I never left once I moved back. People embraced me just like I never went away. From that aspect it has not changed, which is a very good thing.

Can you tell me about some of the history your family has here?

Birchette: My grandfather moved here in the ’50s. He became the pastor of Thankful Baptist Church. He was a minister in Asheville, North Carolina, which is where my father’s side of the family is from. He was also in the funeral business in Asheville, and he saw a need for that here.

Have you faced challenges being a business owner here and what were some of the challenges your grandfather and father faced?

Birchette: This industry the challenge is … and I don’t mean this to sound racial but … people tend to … white people go to a white funeral home, black people go to a black funeral home, so just trying to break that. We serve everyone and that goes for all the funeral homes. One does not have to use their race, so just breaking that barrier. Overall though funeral directors tend to serve the community, so I don’t face many obstacles dealing with people here.

What do you feel is the importance of Johnson City celebrating its Sesquicentennial Anniversary this year?

Birchette: Just to highlight the area. There is so much history here as we were discussing. This area is growing. I think that would be appealing to a broader audience, so I believe this celebration will shine a spotlight on East Tennessee and Johnson City in particular. Maybe it will bring in some tourism and help us expand here.

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