Jessica Thorn of Greenbrier purposely chose a profession that deals with part of life that many people don’t like to think about — death.
Thorn, 33, is the newly appointed Faulkner County coroner.
Her mentor, Patrick F. Moore, 68, died of a heart attack in September after 28 1/2 years as coroner and more than 40 as an emergency medical technician. Moore, who Thorn said was like a father to her, named her as his chief deputy a couple of months before he died.
A former funeral director, Thorn had worked with Moore since 2009, starting on a part-time basis.
“He took me under his wing and trained me,” Thorn said. “I was there seven days a week, working, doing something. That’s another reason his death hit so hard. He told me, ‘I know your passion is in this; I want you to be the next coroner.’”
Neither of them expected it to be so soon.
When Moore died, Faulkner County Judge Jim Baker named Deputy Coroner Robert Edwards as interim coroner. Four people, including Edwards, applied for the permanent position.
Baker put together a committee to help make the decision — Conway Police Chief Jody Spradlin, Greenbrier Police Chief Gene Earnhart and Faulkner County Sheriff Tim Ryals. Baker said Thorn was the unanimous selection of the committee, and he recommended her to the Quorum Court. Her appointment was unanimously approved Nov. 21.
“I feel honored that they entrusted it to me,” Thorn said.
Baker said there wasn’t a wrong choice between Thorn and Edwards.
“Both of them are just professional, really. Both of them are top-notch professional people,” Baker said.
Now a single mother of a 14-year-old son, Thorn married shortly after graduating from Guy-Perkins High School, where she was an athlete, primarily a softball player. She started as a nursing major at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton. She worked at a nursing home and became a certified restorative nursing assistant.
“I started dealing with patients who passed away,” she said. That’s when she discovered a passion for helping families through a difficult time.
She co-owned a business for two years, then started working at funeral homes, including Roller funeral homes in Greenbrier and Conway, then Bishop-Crites Funeral Home in Greenbrier. She became a licensed funeral director in 2011.
“I met with families; I picked up bodies on death calls. I had to go out at night and pick up. I made funeral arrangements, directed the funerals,” she said. “I’ve dealt with everything from babies to children to adults.”
And, yes, she said, “it’s very hard.”
Thorn not only had to be compassionate; she had to be diplomatic when working with families.
“I’ve had them where the police had to be called. I had a drunk man cuss me out, making arrangements for funerals. Families fight terribly. It’s amazing how they do fight when something like that happens,” she said.
Thorn said she and Moore became friends when she was a funeral director.
“Then I started working with Pat part time, and I really took an interest in that, because it’s got the investigative side, and it’s still serving families in our county. When you grow up here, you know a lot of people,” she said. “It makes you feel good to give back and help people you know during one of the most critical times of their lives.”
She said Moore told her a few years ago that he wanted her to direct his funeral — he picked out his casket and told her what suit he wanted to wear.
He said, ‘If I ever die, you’ve got to do my funeral; you’re the best funeral director I know.’ I said, ‘Coroner, I can’t do your funeral. You have to do my funeral,’” she said.
Thorn said she planned his funeral, according to his wishes.
Moore is not here to sing Thorn’s praises as his successor, but Leslie Moore, his widow, is. She is also a longtime deputy coroner.
“She’ll do a great job; Pat’s been training her,” Leslie Moore said Monday during the swearing-in ceremony for Thorn and the deputies. “She’s got the heart for it, and she’s got the knowledge.”
Thorn said Pat Moore was the best coroner in Arkansas and the best teacher she could have had.
“He wanted to teach me everything he knew, and that’s not possible to do. You take 28 1/2 years, and you put it into seven years. I signed out all the death certificates for the office; I did call. Of course, anything we have that’s major, whether it was a suicide, homicide, a car accident, we called Pat out to come, too. I’ve pretty much done most of the administrative side of it,” Thorn said. “He told me, ‘You’re like a sponge; you soak up everything.’”
Thorn is certified in medicolegal death investigation, a 40-hour course created between the Arkansas
Coroners’ Association and the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy. It is a program, Thorn said, that Pat Moore spearheaded. She’s also been trained in crime-scene photography, sudden unexplained infant death and more.
“One thing I am trained in that a lot of others aren’t is how to properly remove a body that is buried. In order to preserve evidence, there’s a proper way to do that,” she said. Thorn said she and Edwards attended that training.
Being promoted means more responsibility on her shoulders, but she’s ready.
“This is what Pat was grooming me for,” she said.
Saline County Coroner Kevin Cleghorn succeeded Moore as president of the Arkansas Coroners’ Association and worked closely with Moore, whom he considered a friend.
Cleghorn said members of the association were watching the Faulkner County coroner appointment closely.
“Either one of those two (Thorn or Edwards) were great choices. They’re both fantastic and have done such a phenomenal job keeping that office going in the past three months,” Cleghorn said. “I’m proud of them. We would have been happy either way. Now we’re going to do everything we can to make sure she succeeds and make sure the office thrives like it has the past 28 years.”
Coroners are appointed in only Faulkner and Pulaski counties; they are elected in Arkansas’ other 73 counties.
“There are actually several female coroners across the state,” Cleghorn said, including in Yell County.
Thorn said part-time Deputy Coroner Mark Mahan of Wooster has moved to full time to fill her position, and Ronny Smith of Greenbrier has been added as a part-time deputy coroner.
The day Thorn’s appointment as coroner was approved, the office was dedicated as the Patrick F. Moore Building.
She said she doesn’t anticipate making a lot of changes because she said Moore set the standard.
“I want to see what he’s worked so hard for for 28 years [carried] on and not change it all. I know those shoes will never be filled. I want to carry on Pat’s legacy, to serve and take care of the citizens of Faulkner County. It’s an honor to be able to follow in his footsteps,” Thorn said.
“He was such a great man with so much knowledge. So much knowledge wrapped in one human being was just amazing. Doing the job like he did it — that’s going to be my challenge,” Thorn said.
“I want to put my time in with the county and be like Pat,” she said. “I want to do this job as long as I can do this job. That’s my desire; that’s my dream. I’m thankful I have this opportunity.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.