Saturday, December 31, 2005

obit writers on national public radio

Atlanta Journal Constitution Obituary Editor Kay Powell and Steve Miller, the New York Sun obits editor who uses the more formal "Stephen Miller" as his byline, were absolutely fabulous on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" on Dec. 30, 2005. They were featued in a 5-minute segment titled "Remembering Those Who Died in 2005."

Kay deftly answered questions about how she chooses to write obits about the not-so-famous, how she talks to bereaved relatives and how she handles delicate bits of information.

Steve was interviewed in a supermarket, where he talked about recently deceased inventors whose creations can be found in grocery stores. It was brilliant.

Lee Levinson, who I believe is an NPR commentator, read his own father's paid death notice. It was hilarious.

Kudos to all three! And a Happy New Year to anyone who reads this blog!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Boston Globe obituarist "could bring the dead to life."

Don't worry. Tom Long, longtime Boston Globe obituary writer, is not dead.

But he is gone from that New England newspaper. And Brian McGrory, a Globe columnist, wrote what could eventually be used as part of Long's obituary in the Dec. 23, 2005, edition of the paper.

McGrory writes: To hear Long on the phone with a recent widow was like hearing a virtuoso perform in Carnegie Hall: ''I'm so sorry to bother you. . .. I want readers to feel as if they knew him. . . . He sounds like an incredible man." Countless times, his pitch-perfect obituaries were clipped from the newspaper by the relatives of the deceased, tucked inside family Bibles and albums, and preserved for generations to come.

I know, I know. My fellow obit writers are thinking, "So? That could be said for any of us."

The point of the column is to comment on a reduction in the work force at the Globe. Long is one of 33 editorial staffers to take a voluntary buyout package and thus decrease the surplus population at the newspaper, to paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge.

Writes McGrory: Wall Street has decided that the best way to make newspapers more attractive to readers and advertisers is to cut them. If this fails to make sense, then maybe it doesn't.

I think it's neat that McGrory used the obit writer - instead of Tom Oliphant (op-ed columnist and occasional TV politics commentator) or any of the other possibly more famous editorial folks - as the springboard for his column.

I'll always remember Tom Long as the author of one of my all-time favorite obits: Craig Johnstone Kingsbury, who lost his head in the Steven Spielberg thriller, "Jaws." (Carolyn Gilbert has the obit posted at

Long wrote in the Sept. 4, 2002, obit: Most people probably hadn't met Craig Johnstone Kingsbury, but his face was familiar. He played the role of old salt Ben Gardner in the movie "Jaws." When know-it-all marine biologist Richard Dreyfuss donned scuba gear to examine a shark-ravaged fishing boat and found Gardner's severed head floating in the flooded hull, it was one of the most frightening moments in the film.

Kingsbury originally was hired as a dialect coach to help British actor Robert Shaw sound like a crusty New England fisherman. A production assistant recorded Kingsbury's conversations with Shaw about sharks and such.

Some of Kingsbury's banter - such as the line that killing a great white is "not like chasin' no tommy cod or bluegill in a pond" - and Kingsbury himself ended up in the 1975 film.

Long also included the nifty fact that Kingsbury was known for going shoeless - even in winter. His daughter apparently told Long that her dad "had size 13 feet and said he couldn't get shoes to fit him, but I think it was also a way of being different."

Instead of a traditional funeral service, his passing was observed with "a barefoot celebration of his life." What a neat guy! What a cool obit!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

who's who????

Christopher Reed used humor to enliven his obit for Rutherford Aris, which was printed in the Dec. 21 edition of the Guardian of London.

Aris, a world-renowned mathematical theorist in chemical engineering, a scholarly palaeographist and skilled calligrapher, was famous enough to be listed in the first volume of Who's Who. But for Volume 2, Rutherford Aris received a letter from the publishers requesting a biography of Aris Rutherford.

Although Rutherford Aris replied, explaining that they had flip-flopped his first and last names, the editors apparently kept sending requests to Aris Rutherford.

So, the chemial engineering professor complied. Rutherford Aris, who did scientific research on chemical fluids, composed a tongue-in-cheek Who's-Who entry for Aris Rutherford, professor of Scotch - the liquid variety. It was printed in the second volume of the book of notable people.

Chris writes that the highly-spirited make-believe professor's degree in distillation engineering concentrated on another kind of fluid he had become steeped in at the Strathspey and Glenlivet Institute, where liquid output was more usually measured in wee drams. . . Aris MacPherson Rutherford contented himself with basic works, Sampling Techniques (1957), and Distillation Procedures (1963), which presumably fascinated fellow members at the Distillation Club of Edinburgh.

Commenting on his own work, Chris says it's "an example of how one funny thing someone did makes the piece. Some may demur (and I welcome their remarks) that the great man's achievements were therefore belittled. I take the alternative view, that only because of his humour did he make a general-interest newspaper that might not otherwise have run his obit at all."

This also is an example of the reliability of the information in Who's Who. Because the biographies are presumably provided by the famous folks themselves, we tend to accept them as fact. But even the rich and famous may inflate their list of accomplishments, education, military service, etc., or insert some private joke - like membership in an unusually named organization that doesn't exist.

It's like information gleaned from Internet searches or stuff you read in the newspaper. It's not necessarily true.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

elf obit, just in time for christmas

while normal americans spend the weeks leading up to christmas by searching for the perfect gifts for their loved ones, i spend that time wishing and hoping and thinking and praying for a story about a department-store santa, a christmas-tree farmer or a toymaker to share with my readers at christmastime.

it's the same kind of thrill i get when a politician dies on election day or close enough to election day that the obit runs the same day as election results. or when a military veteran's obit can run on memorial day or veteran's day. or a professional baseball player during the world series.

the dark side of my fixation is that these subjects, whose stories are so much fun to share at such appropriate times, have to be dead. don't get me wrong. i know that i have no power - short of murder - to make someone die on cue. but i do feel guilty, when i get what i wish for.

yesterday, i got a rush, then felt guilty for getting that rush, when i learned that
john lahoski, who dressed up as an elf for a local holiday train program, inspired by the "polar express" story, had died.

not only that, he apparently suffered a fatal heart attack while helping decorate a public place with holiday candles - en route to his elf gig.

i'll be working on christmas eve, writing obits to run in the plain dealer on christmas day. i'm still hoping for a department-store santa.

Monday, December 19, 2005

a true fan

Thanks to Kay Powell, obits editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, for sharing the story of the late Wilma Eckert, a St. Louis Cardinals fan who was delighted that the Major League Baseball club traded relief pitcher Ray King.

Apparently, fans blamed King for losing some crucial games. Eckert's death notice/obituary was printed in the Belleville ( Belleville, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri) News-Democrat two days after the trade was announced.

In the online guest book, someone from California wrote that cable newsman (or is it pundit?) Keith Olbermann brought national attention to Eckert's obit by reading it on his "Countdown" program on MSNBC.

Also in the guest book was the following note:
We'll make you proud, Wilma! (signed) Aaron Miles and Larry Bigbie, St. Louis, MO.

I may be wrong about this, but I believe the Cardinals just picked up Miles and Bigbie either in trade or as free agents. (I'm not well-versed on baseball trades and such.) Of course, it's possible that someone else left that note and attributed it to Miles and Bigbie.

Regardless, it was a cool family-written obit.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Not a brag

One of my obits won a local press club competition --- in the arts and entertainment category. The subject: A trucker and his faithful dog, who both died together in a highway accident.

I know obit writers and FOBs often see obits as a form of entertainment, but this was just weird.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

sen. wm. proxmire, former obit writer.

thanks to adam bernstein for pointing out in his dec. 15th obit for sen. william proxmire that:

Proxmire became a political reporter on the Capital Times in Madison, but soon clashed with management over his wish to start a chapter of the Newspaper Guild as well as his piquant criticism of the publisher's own articles. In a short time, he worked his way down to obituary writer.

i know it sounds condescending. after all, we obit writers celebrate our fabulous talent and love what we do. but you know it's true that proxmire was being assigned to the death beat for his sins against the publisher. it was a demotion.

but just look at what he did after that!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

one of kay powell's gems from atlanta

you should read kay powell's obituary for Michael Hart, a successful black businessman who videotaped oral histories that detail atlanta's contemporary black history. the obit was printed in the atlanta journal-constitution on tuesday, dec. 13.

she celebrates hart's intellect, his business savvy and his desire to tell the history of black atlanta from the perspective of prominent black atlantans. instead of making a buck on the project, he made his tapes available to the public at a research library.

as a member of the atlanta-fulton library board of trustees, he complained enough about the condition of libraries in black neighborhoods to effect improvements.

and kay, as always, found a quirkier accomplishment for which hart will be remembered. she writes:

In the kitchen, his specialty was gumbo, which he made a competitive sport against his friend Dr. Jasper Session's bouillabaisse. They had ongoing debates about how to make the best roux.

this moment in black history brought to you and me and everybody else by the great kay powell.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

dueling green berets

both adam bernstein of the washington post and stephen miller of the new york sun wrote obits for william p. yarborough, a retired army lieutenant general who convinced president john f. kennedy to put green berets on the heads of american special forces during the vietnam era.

their summaries of yarborough's life appeared in their respective papers on thursday, dec. 8, 2005.

if you have time to read adam's obit for the 93-year-old military man and steve's summary of the historic dude's life - each is approximately 1,000 words - it's a great opportunity to compare and learn from how two talented obit writers present the same basic facts in slightly different fashion.

yarborough's story provide some lessons in military and political history that are especially meaningful today with all the controversy about the war in iraq.

regarding yarborough's horrific "friendly fire" episode of ww2, adam writes:

The invasion of Sicily in 1943 provided Gen. Yarborough, then a battalion commander, with one of his grimmest memories: the downing of 23 troop transport planes and 410 men by Allied antiaircraft fire. The poor coordination among air, ground and naval forces led the Allies to mistake the U.S. transport planes for German bombers that had shortly before flown over the area.

After seeing wounded paratroopers leaping from crippled aircraft, Gen. Yarborough said: "They all jumped. Every man in my plane jumped although some could hardly stand up. I haven't found them all yet, but every man jumped."

steve writes of yarborough's role in spying on american civilians in the states during the vietnam war:

In 1971, Yarborough became embroiled in controversy when it became clear that he was involved in an intelligence operation that collected information on domestic groups involved in protesting the war in Vietnam. There were no charges of wrongdoing, but feathers were ruffled when it was found that intelligence had been collected not only on groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers, but also on the Daughters of the American Revolution.

of course, both adam and steve wrote about both of these incidents. and both of them addressed these facts in ways that make history real to modern-day readers.

hats off - or should i say "green berets off? - to two of our favorite grimsters!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

gerry hostetler's "it's a matter of life"

have you read gerry hostetler's obit column in the charlotte observer? the column is called "it's a matter of life." each column is an obit, but gerry wraps her own observations and commentary around and through them.

for example, she starts her dec. 5 column (about fritz littlejohn, the newsman who made the decision to air army-mccarthy hearings on television) this way:

If you thought the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Watergate scandal was mind-blowing, you should have been around in the mid-1950s. You would have seen its grandaddy when the groundbreaking Army-McCarthy hearings were televised.

Francis Newton "Fritz" Littlejohn, whose controversial decision it was to air those hearings, died Nov. 24. . .

she gives us a history lesson:

Television was coming into its own then, and viewers were riveted to the little black and white screens. At issue was whether Sen. Joseph McCarthy's former chief counsel, Roy Cohn, had pressured the Army to give special privileges to inductee and former consultant on McCarthy's staff G. David Schine.

most of her subjects are everyday folks from north carolina. (littlejohn started his journalism career as a sports reporter for the charlotte observer.)

her nov. 30 column is about a woman, who died in a two-car collision in the same area where her daughter was killed nearly 20 years ago.

gerry's leads it with:

Sometimes, just when a family thinks it's had all it can bear, along comes another tragedy. This proves that life is not always fair, neither to the living nor to the dead.

yet gerry doesn't fall into the let's-be-morbid trap. she tells the story of a woman who enjoyed life and brought joy to the lives of others. she writes of a woman who shared a common love of hunting for indian arrowheads with her husband with whom she collected about 1,000 perfect arrowheads.

you can access gerry's recent columns at It's a Matter of Life.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

nut farmer obit from oregonian

amy martinez starke wrote a nifty obit in november for andy loughridge, a nut farmer who liked to use "nonsensical phrases that he seemed to have invented."

she listed some of his nonsense phrases including: "If that don't cap old Noley!" That was one that actually meant something: Can you believe it?

she cleverly used the same phrase as the punchline at the end of her story.

in fact, amy did a terrific job of injecting gems that reminded me of the kind of language that neighbors might use in conversation over the back fence. for example:

When Marjorie Roberts, his high school sweetheart, headed to California, he and a friend also headed west on a motorcycle, and Andy just "happened" to run into Marjorie in the Los Angeles area.


For the next 60 years, Andy farmed filberts. (Some may have called them hazelnuts, but Andy figured they were filberts and that's what he called them.)

bravo, amy.

here's the link to Andy's obit.