As early as the fifth grade, Bill Cutler knew he'd go into the family mortuary business. It helped that he walked by the family funeral home every day on his way to school.
Today, Cutler, a partner with Heafey-Heafey-Hoffmann-Dworak & Cutler mortuaries in Omaha and Cutler-O'Neill-Meyer-Woodring funeral home in Council Bluffs, can say he started out washing the cars and sweeping the sidewalks.
“Which I did very well, by the way,” he said.
Cutler's professional accomplishments and civic contributions led to him being crowned Saturday night as the 117th king of Ak-Sar-Ben during the coronation ball at the CenturyLink Center.
Cutler was born in 1948 in Council Bluffs, where his family's funeral home business began in 1901. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1966 and attended the former Omaha University before graduating from the Dallas Institute of Mortuary Science in 1969.
It was during his college days, while visiting home over winter break, that Cutler reconnected with high school classmate Susan Eakin. They married two years later, in 1970.
By then, Cutler had committed himself to a career serving others. He learned from his father the basic creed of the job: to provide the care you would want provided to your family. Wear a dark suit, keep your shoes shined. Be there for whatever is needed, but otherwise remain in the background. It's a job that's connected him to an entire community, introducing him to people at the most difficult times of their lives.
“It's a relationship business,” Cutler said. “I love what I do.”
The funeral industry has changed through the years, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, when national chains bought up hundreds of funeral homes around the country. The Cutlers wanted no part of that trend.
“Susan and I made that decision 40 years ago that we didn't want to sell our business,” Cutler said.
Instead, they grew that business into Omaha. In the late 1970s, the Cutlers bought the former Hoffmann Mortuary and merged companies with brothers Tom and Ed Heafey. Together, they built a new funeral home at 78th and West Center Road and later added new partners in funeral director Paul Dworak and his son Walt.
The Cutler family moved from Council Bluffs to Omaha in 1987, building a home near Westside High School, where all three of their children attended.
They've been active in the community since.
Bill is board president of the Nebraska Organ Recovery System, a nonprofit dedicated to maximizing the recovery and quality of organs and tissues for transplantation. He also serves on the boards for the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, College of Saint Mary, Westside Foundation and the Merrymakers Association, which provides music and entertainment to senior care centers. Additionally, he is on the development committee for the Archdiocese of Omaha and is a past chairman and grand marshal of the River City Rodeo.
Cutler is modest about his service, preferring to cast a spotlight on his wife.
“Susan is the real rock,” he said.
Susan, a former elementary school teacher, currently serves on the board of directors for the Children's Hospital and Medical Center Foundation and the Methodist Hospital Foundation. She has served on numerous nonprofit boards, guilds and fundraising committees, supporting such groups as the Henry Doorly Zoo, Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha Public Library, Omaha Community Playhouse, Omaha Symphony and Omaha Performing Arts, among others. She also is a past president of the Westside Community Schools volunteer council.
Ak-Sar-Ben — both the area and the civic organization — hold a special place for the Cutlers. They fondly recall going to the racetrack as a young couple, and they're “amazed” by the area's rebirth as a new destination spot and extension of the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.
They also treasure their longstanding involvement with the foundation honoring Bill Cutler this year.
“You learn so much about your community when you're involved with Ak-Sar-Ben,” said Susan Cutler.
The family's history with the coronation ball dates to 1969, when Susan was a princess. She served as Women's Committee Chairman in 1993.
Bill's various Ak-Sar-Ben roles include a two-year stint as Coronation Ball chairman in 2009 and 2010.
The couple have attended the event for the past quarter-century, during which time their children have participated in a variety of capacities.
Daughter Jeanie was crowned queen in 1994 and currently serves on the Women's Ball Committee. Before then, she served as a princess and page, as did younger daughter Jacquie. Son Bill, who followed his dad into the family business, is a past escort and page and has served on the Floor Committee since 2005.
Additionally, all three grandchildren — Katherine, Benjamin and Sam — have been pages.
As his one-year reign begins, Cutler characteristically deflects attention. He says he's most interested in the money the coronation ball raises for local scholarships and how the foundation continues to serve as a conduit for civic engagement.
“There's always somebody you look up to and learn from,” he said.