Monday, May 12, 2008

SPOW's First Lifetime Achievement Award

Jim Nicholson, retired Philadelphia Daily News obituary writer, is the recipient of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers first Lifetime Achievement Award.

In her letter nominating Jim for this honor, Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat, said: His 19 years of obituaries for the Daily News, an estimated 20,000 of them, laid waste to the presumption that most lives are ordinary.

Before Nicholson, there were people important enough to note in passing, and those who weren’t; after Nicholson, if the subject of an obituary seemed ordinary, it was because the reporter had not dug deep enough.

Nicholson’s campaign to dignify every subject with his laser-beam attention – and the delicacy and generosity with which he wrote about their flawed lives-- was an innovation and a tremendous success. It immediately gave the Daily News an authentic voice in the local community and a standing in the national one.

Nicholson and the paper were honored early on by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the idea of using the obit page to tell life stories spread. Nicholson became something of an evangelist on this subject; he used to send out “obit kits” with samples and lists of questions and tips on resources.

His influence, eight years after his retirement, can be seen today on the obit pages of newspapers in the U.S. and beyond, embracing writers, editors, readers, funeral directors, and survivors.

The chapter I wrote about him for The Dead Beat makes a lengthier case for his influence.

I’ve attached a few of his obituaries from the Daily News archives, which demonstrate his skill, originality, and uncanny knack for (as one of his fellow obit writers put it) leaving the ground and taking off into the stratosphere.

Read some examples of his work here.

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