When Muscogee Coroner Buddy Bryan took office this month, he didn't want to build a new team. He wanted to create a family.
"We're family down here and I want us to get to know each other on a professional and personal basis -- go out to eat with the wives and have fun," Bryan said.
Family is at the center of Bryan's focus. His office is decorated with artwork done by his son, pictures of his children and portraits of his grandson posing in martial arts gear. His decision to run for office, he said, was based primarily on his desire to serve the community.
"My priority, the reason I ran for office, was to be an ambassador for the city and the citizens that we service," Bryan said. "My main concern is the families. There's not a whole lot we can do for the dead person, but the families we'll be consulting with them, providing them with information that will help them with the process of grief."
That attitude of partnership extends to his staff as well.
Chief Deputy Freeman Worley said Bryan had been open to all staff members while transitioning into the job and has so far always recognized his team's collaborative effort.
"Not one time since Buddy's taken over this office has he said it was him," Worley said. "It's never about him alone. It's us. I have worked under big 'I' and little 'you' syndrome for a long time. I've seen 10 days now and I have not seen a big 'I.' So that's a big relief."
Bryan first began his career in funeral services work as a teenager.
He started at Britton & Dobbs Funeral Home when he was 14, and he later attended a mortuary college in Atlanta.
During his 44 years in the field, he discovered a talent for embalming.
A model of a skull sits in a glass cabinet behind his desk, a token of his love for restoring faces for funeral viewings.
"I majored in restorative art when I was in mortuary college," he said. "I can take (a plastic skull) and a picture of someone and build a face. It's a work of love.
"One girl I worked on for 17 straight hours. She was high school student who had an automobile accident and the only thing I could think of was that mother not being able to see her daughter."
Bryan provides help beyond grief counseling for families who have recently experienced a loss and assisting law officials in investigations.
His office is working to help citizens create living wills and to receive power of attorney.
He also hopes to educate about ways to mitigate high funeral costs and lower pauper burial cases for the county.
"We're in a really stressful economic situation," Bryan said. "People can't go to the attorneys to have a general or durable power of attorney done. Someone could come by my office, and I'll have it done for them in five minutes because I'll pull it up on my computer and we'll fill in the blanks. We'll print it out, witness it and notarize it before you walk out the door at no cost."
Worley and Bryan are also creating a program directed at high school students.
Using video and PowerPoint presentations, they hope to help mitigate drug and alcohol problems among younger demographics.
"We'll bring them in and show them some videos and some PowerPoint presentations of some pretty bad accidents," Bryan said. "Maybe it'll help wake them up a little bit and realize 'I could end up looking like that.'"
Worley said one of the most important signs that Bryan is off to a promising start is not only his dedication to the community, but his recognition of longstanding staff and willingness to help nearby county coroners.
Worley said although it's common for coroners to bring in a new staff on being elected, Bryan kept and worked with the existing staff. The two men plan on retiring together after 12 more years of service.
More than building professional teamwork within the office, Bryan and Worley both said they hoped to capture memories and moments that could help the office bond together.
A picture of Bryan taken by staff members on the coroner's first day sits on a shelf next to his desk. It serves as a symbol not only of the staff's budding relationship, but the fragility of life the office deals with daily.
"There won't never be another day like that," Worley said. "He might be elected two more times but there won't ever be another day like that. You don't know if this time tomorrow who in that picture's not going to be here."