Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Dead "Dead Head"

In my weekly Plain Dealer obituary feature, "A Life Story," I try to introduce readers in the Cleveland area to Northeast Ohioans they probably never got to know.

I strive to maintain diversity by choosing subjects of various ages, races, ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, counties in our circulation area, fields of work and lifestyles.

Keeping it fresh can be a challenge. So when I saw a death notice for Tim "Mowgli" Princic, a dreadlock-coiffed 30-year-old with an abiding appreciation of the Grateful Dead, I felt I needed to do his story. After all, how many opportunities do you get to write about recently deceased Dead Heads?

I have to admit, I was somewhat misled from the get-go. I told one of his relatives that, if I did the story, I would have to explain why he was dead. He was only 30.

I initially feared he might have died of a drug overdose or took his own life. If I had been told the full story of how he died, I probably would have passed on doing it, realizing it could create problems.

I don't recall how it was explained, but I came away believing that Mowgli was in an unfortunate car crash while on his way home from visiting his parents.

It turned out that it was an unfortunate car crash, but it happened while he was leaving a tavern, where he had been partying with friends. Folks I spoke with believed he had intended to crash at a nearby friend's place for the night. Instead, he crashed into a utility pole and died.

I didn't want my special feature to turn into a police report. Of course, I did speak with the spokesman for the police department a couple of days before Mowgli's story was published. At that time, toxicology reports had not come back. So I couldn't state with certainty that Mowgli had been driving drunk, even though that's what police and most everyone else believed.

I tried to present the death sentence in the same tone as the rest of the story of Mowgli's brief free-spirited life.

I started the story as follows: Tim Princic paid for trips and tickets to Grateful Dead shows with bread, butter and American cheese.

The Akron resident, known to many as "Mowgli," made grilled cheese sandwiches on a small propane stove that he kept in his Volkswagen bus or whatever vehicle he was driving.

Princic, who died May 20 at age 30, sold the dollar-a-pop manna to fellow Deadheads (Grateful Dead fans) in an area of the parking lot designated as "Shakedown Street" after the Grateful Dead song and album of the same name.

I wanted to keep the reader engaged in the story. So I didn't say how Mowgli died until later.

I wondered how someone his age could have followed the Dead from venue to venue with a multitude of nomadic disciples, when he was only around 18, when Jerry Garcia, the leader of the band, died.

"At 17, his wandering feet got the better of him," said his mother, Terry. "He and some friends took off for California. His first trip across country and, I believe, where he found his love for the Deadhead community."

Mowgli went on to follow the remnants of the Grateful Dead - its members' spin-off acts - and Dead tribute bands.

The experience of traveling on a wing and a prayer in a Volkswagen bus, which kept breaking down, led to Mowgli's becoming a VW mechanic.

The owner of the garage where Mowgli worked said: "He wanted to learn the old Volkswagens, which I know all about -- the old '60s and '70s era -- which I thought was kind of cool. He was like a free bird."

That's where I seized my chance to talk about the accident.

He also learned to fix the VW's much faster brother, the Audi.

Princic was driving a black 1999 Audi on May 20 when it crashed into a utility pole in Painesville.

He was thrown from the car and died.

Before the accident, he had been visiting family in Lake County and celebrating a friend's birthday at a Painesville watering hole.

I resumed the life story by talking about a quarry park, frequented by would-be flower children, where everybody knows your nickname.

I gave one of the explanations I had heard about how Mowgli got his moniker.

Princic was called "Mowgli," because he reminded friends of the jungle boy from the Rudyard Kipling stories.

"A skinny little boy, never had a shirt on, and he was like a monkey. He was always climbing on stuff," said Princic's former girlfriend, Heather Schaffer.

I showed Mowgli's caring nature and love for Schaffer.

Princic often lifted Schaffer, a paraplegic, out of her wheelchair and carried her to otherwise inaccessible places, so she could share what he experienced.

He once carried her at least 90 steps to the scenic-view area of a lookout tower in the Smoky Mountains.

I ended the story with an expression of Mowgli's attitude on life.

"He would dance naked in the kitchen, just because it's Tuesday," Schaffer said.

"I don't think I've ever met someone who loved life so much, just because it was."

I received a lot of positive feedback on Mowgli's story and not just from folks who knew him. People enjoyed reading an obit about this fascinating live-life-to-the-fullest character.

I expected that I and my superiors would hear from critics, who thought I was an irresponsible journalist who paid tribute to a drunk driver who could easily have taken the lives of others with his reckless behavior. And we did get complaints. But only a few.

Of course, I wasn't paying tribute to Mowgli. I simply provided a snapshot of his life. I don't editorialize. I have faith in my readers' ability to draw their own conclusions.



Alana Baranick said...

Amy Starke sends the following comment:

Alana, for some reason I can't post to your blog, so here is a comment for you.

This is a prime reason why we need to do background searches and some research before we do our stories.

I myself have only faced this situation once, when a co-worker asked me to consider doing a Life Story on a Shari's Restaurant worker (a waiter, Latino heritage) he had gotten to know and liked for his positive attitude. He knew this fellow had a young family.

Well, I knew the fellow died in a car crash in southern Oregon in which his three passengers had been injured. I had a hunch he might have been driving drunk. So I called the Oregon State Police and they confirmed the fellow had been driving drunk.

Knowing that, I could not do a Life Story on him. In general I am not a judgmental person and include people of ALL kinds in my column. (As readers can tell you.)

But I also happen to think drunk drivers are the scum of the earth -- and this guy not only killed himself but seriouly injured 3 other people.

There was no way I could possibly work up enough sympathy for this guy to do a Life Story, much less to do it in such a way that the readers would enjoy reading it.

That's MY perspective. I don't know if I feel this way about anything other than drunk/impaired drivers and child molesters though.

mckie said...

I think you wrote that very nicely, without damning or excusing him for the drink driving, which is, in any case, (1) something you don't yet absolutley know (2)not your job.
Even when I drank I was very agin driving after a drink, but the tendency to demonise people for all such errors is unattractive. If Amy had had one and a half glasses of wine and technically been over the limit when someone else ploughed into her car, killing three passengers, does she want to be remembered only as a callous killer?
It's safer not to drink anything if you're driving, I agree. It's also true that idiots often do drink far too much and kill people other than themselves. But I don't think the obit needs to consider this unless it's part of the story.
Question: would you have done this guy if a tree had fallen on him?
If his crash is news, are the news pages doing something on it, and everyone else affected? If not, why not?

Alana Baranick said...

Thanks, Andrew and Amy.

I actually did do some research before I started Mowgli's obit, Amy.

My newspaper, which covers the community in which Mowgli died, did not print anything about his fatal accident. A one-car crash, even when the driver is the fatality, is not automatic news at The Plain Dealer.

True, I didn't check our competition at that point. And I didn't call the police department right away.

I told the funeral director that I was interested in doing an obit for this fellow. And the funeral director was all for it.

I trusted the funeral director. If he had suspected that Mowgli had been driving drunk, I believe he would have told me. I still don't think he was lying to me. I think he simply was unaware of the circumstances.

I checked for a criminal record and found nothing.

As I said before, I spoke with the police captain before the story was published. At that time, he said toxicology tests weren't back yet. So I couldn't make a statement about the official cause of death.

And as Andrew said, it's not my job to check back with the cops for the final report. The story is what it is. And that's the end of it.

Anonymous said...

Good Job! Should it matter why he died? I mean you aren't doing stories on WHY people died, you are doing the story on their life. Just because he had a few drinks and had made a bad judgement doesn't mean that he wasn't a good person. Life is all about choices, and given the opportunity I am sure we would all want to go back in time at some point and take back something that we said or did! I think that it was well written and regardless of how Mowgli died, there are many people who loved him and miss him very much!
RIP Mowgli, I will always miss you!

Ryan said...

Nice story - I knew Mowgli and he was an awesome person. Much love

Colin said...

Mowgil was my uncle and he is deeply missed. Everyone can say what they want but I doubt he was drunk driving. I miss him very much. RIP