Pender native finds his niche with outlook on town’s future

By COLE BAUER | Norfolk Daily News

PENDER — Tony Smith spends his days between the funeral home and his pheasant farm, but his mind is always on the future.

Smith is a partner in Munderloh-Smith Funeral Homes, and on the side he runs his own pheasant farm.

Giving back to his community is important to Smith, and that is why he’s on the board of Pender’s Nebraska Community Foundation Fund.

Smith was born and raised in Pender and graduated from Pender Public Schools in 2002.

After he graduated, Smith earned a degree in business administration from Nebraska Wesleyan. From there, he went on to earn a degree in funeral directing.

Smith isn’t sure how he decided to become a mortician, he said.

“I honestly don’t really know what brought me here, but I have absolutely no regrets,” Smith said. “I love what I do. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

After college, Smith began working at a funeral home in Omaha before moving back to Pender in 2011.

While he was in Omaha, he began his pheasant farming operation, he said, with his father helping him tend to the birds.

“He would kind of tend to the birds when I was gone during the week, then during the weekends, I would take care of them,” Smith said. “That just slowly started escalating. I went from a thousand, to 5,000. I just kept doubling to tripling in size every year.”

Smith said the decision to raise pheasants came naturally to him, since he had birds and other pets throughout his childhood.

This year, Smith is targeted to sell 115,000 to 118,000 pheasants, mainly to hunting preserves and clubs in South Dakota, he said.

“I would say we’re definitely one of the top two biggest pheasant producers in the state, and maybe we’re the biggest. I don’t know the exact numbers,” Smith said. “It’s a ton of birds, it’s a lot of work.”

Between the jobs and his philanthropical work, Smith keeps busy, he said.

“It’s tough. The funeral home is my top priority, it is my main job,” Smith said. “Outside of (the funeral home’s) office hours, I’m always on the pheasant farm. If I do have a day off, I’ll take a delivery (of pheasants) up to South Dakota.”

Smith enjoys working on the pheasant farm, even though it causes a lot of extra stress, he said.

“It’s kind of relaxing. With all the stress that happens, it’s kind of fun going out there and hearing the pheasants cackle as they’re maturing,” Smith said. “It’s kind of my getaway. It’s kind of a stress reliever that causes a lot of stress at the same time.”

One reason Smith came back to Pender is because it is full of opportunities, he said.

“(Pender) is a very fast-moving community. You look at everything they’ve done in the past seven, eight years since I’ve been back, there’s so much going on in town,” Smith said. “They’ve built a new events center, a new hospital, a new jail. It’s very forward-thinking. It’s a great community.”

The new buildings and resources, which have been funded by private donations, are impressive for a town of just over 1,000 people, Smith said.

“I think people from the outside looking in at Pender are wondering how Pender does what it does,” Smith said.

But there is more to Pender than what meets the eye. Smith’s work as a board member of the Pender-Thurston Education & Community Foundation Fund has been to raise money for the town’s foundation, which will give future generations the resources they need to continue Pender’s growth and improvement, he said.

“To me, that’s what’s really important about it, the future,” Smith said. “Not just what’s happening today, how can we make this community better for future generations.”

Smith served as co-chairman of the Sherwood Foundation Grant, which matched 50 cents to every dollar raised for Pender’s foundation up to $500,000. In the end, Smith and the others were able to raise the maximum amount.

“Everybody wants to see their community thriving,” Smith said.“There’s a lot of people in this community who have strong backbones. They’re out there pushing for a lot of stuff, trying to get the latest things in the community, trying to bring more people into our community.”

Another reason Smith came back to Pender is because most of his family is still here, he said.

“My grandparents still live in town, aunt and uncles, my parents,” Smith said. “I have a lot of family ties.”

When he and his wife were looking to start a family of their own, it made sense to go back to their roots, Smith said.

Smith said it was good to be back in his hometown.

“I like the personal relationships you have with so many people,” he said. “Just that home-town feeling of being back is nice.”

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