Saturday, April 22, 2006

What a way to go!

Scott Crossfield, a legendary test pilot who pushed the boundaries of flight in supersonic planes, was killed Wednesday when the small Cessna he was piloting crashed into the pine-shrouded mountains of northeast Georgia during a storm. - from Washington Post obit, April 20, 2006.

Lawrence Grodsky, a nationally known motorcycle safety expert and author who taught thousands of riders to handle themselves on the roads, died Saturday on his bike in Fort Stockton, Texas, after being hit by a deer. He was 55, and had been on his way from a safety conference in California to Pittsburgh for his mother's 85th birthday. - from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obit, April 11, 2006.

Anthony Burger, 44, died while playing piano on a gospel music ocean cruise trip sponsored by Bill and Gloria Gaither and all their gospel music friends. Some 1,500 passengers were aboard. According to a doctor's report, Burger's heart simply burst while he was doing what he loved best, playing a gospel song before the cruise ship passengers and the other singers on the ship. - from story printed in the Leaf-Chronicle of Clarksville, Tenn., March 5, 2006. (More on Burger's life and death can be accessed online through the Christian Concert Authority news archives.)

Folks who died while doing what they loved. Let's add this to the obit writer's version of "These are a few of my favorite things."

Joe Holley and Stephanie McCrummen include little details that make the Crossfield obit take off. When Crossfield's Cessna 210, which he had been flying for years, went down, he was returning home from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., where he had given a talk, the pair of Washington Posties write.

They add: In a lifetime of flying, Crossfield was well acquainted with risk, having survived at least one crash landing and a catastrophic engine explosion while testing the X-15, a revolutionary rocket-powered airplane.

And the clincher, a quote from retired Marine Corps. Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, director of the Air and Space Museum, who noted the irony of a man who survived crash landings and explosions only to die in a small, private plane in a storm. "But if he'd been given a choice," he said, "he probably wouldn't have had it any other way. He would not have wanted it to happen on a front porch, in a rocker."

Isn't that great?

Sally Kalson filled Grodsky's obit with details and comments that add to the irony of his manner of leaving the planet.

Side note: I don't recall ever meeting Grodsky, although we attended the same high school - Gateway Senior High School, Monroeville, Pa. - at the same time. Our common scholastic heritage and the fact that Myron Cope, the radio voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was his uncle make me feel connected to him. Isn't it interesting how obits can have that affect on people?

Anthony Burger. I was heart-broken when I read the wire reports of Burger's death. I was a big fan.

Burger used to do this bit during a Gaither concert in which he'd play a happy instrumental piece really fast. It seemed that he was playing increasingly faster and more ferociously until, thanks to special effects, smoke poured out of the piano as though Burger had set the keys and strings on fire.

Performers at gospel concerts often sing songs about heaven and make comments about feeling exhilarated by the music and the message in the music. They say things like, "It feels like we're in heaven already," or "I can't wait to go to my heavenly home."

I hope Anthony Burger was in that frame of mind when he died. I couldn't find a report that gave the title of the song he was playing when he made his exit. It would have been nice to know.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

In Praise of Jim Sheeler, Pulitzer Prize Winner

I have been in awe of Jim Sheeler's writing talents since the Third Great Obituary Writers Conference, when retired journalism professor Garrett Ray shared copies of Jim's "A Colorado Life," a freelance obit feature Jim started at the Denver Post.

It wasn't until the winter of 2003 that I was able to convince my editors at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, to allow me to try something similar. We call it "A Life Story."

This new feature was certainly better than the type of obits I had been doing, but it didn't hold a candle to Jim's work.

Last year, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors announced that its revolving category for 2005 would be obituary writing, my boss kept telling me, "You're a shoe-in for this award."

I told him he was overconfident. That he didn't realize what terrific work is being done by my obit-writing friends across the country and by many other obit writers whom I haven't had the pleasure of meeting.

And then I told him what I truly believed. "If the Rocky Mountain News submits Jim Sheeler's work in the obit category, there's absolutely no way I or anyone else can win."

I have to believe that Jim's paper must have submitted his general assignment work and not his obits. After all, he does more than walk the death beat these days.

That decision cleared the way so the rest of us would stand a chance. I got lucky and took home the ASNE honors, but I knew I didn't - and still don't - measure up to the standard of excellence the Jim sets.

A few weeks ago, we learned that Jim won the 2006 ASNE Award for nondeadline writing. And now, he's got the top prize in journalism - the Pulitzer - for feature writing.

Congratulations, Jim! Nobody deserves this honor more than you.

For those who don't know, Jim, Steve Miller (whose byline in the New York Sun is "Stephen Miller") and I are co-authors of "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers." For more information on the book and how to order it, visit and click he "my book" button.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Marilyn Johnson and Adam Bernstein on BookTV

Be sure to watch or tape BookTV (CSpan2) from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Sunday, April 16, for Marilyn Johnson's discussion of her book, "The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries." Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post is the interviewer.

Here's what is posted on the BookTV Web site:

The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries - Marilyn Johnson

Description: Author Marilyn Johnson talks about her book, "The Dead Beat," at Borders Books & Music in Washington, DC. Ms. Johnson looks at obituaries and the people who write them. She also examines the regional and international differences between obituaries written about the same person.

The author is interviewed by Adam Bernstein, staff obituary writer for the Washington Post, who is also featured in her book. Both the author and the interviewer answer audience questions following their discussion.

Author Bio: Marilyn Johnson, former staff writer for Life magazine and an editor at Esquire, has written obituaries for Katharine Hepburn, Princess Diana, Jackie Onassis, Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, and Marlon Brando.

Publisher: HARPER COLLINS 10 E. 53rd Street New York, NY 10022

Monday, April 10, 2006

obit by indirection

In today's LAT, there is a classic of what could be called an obit by indirection, when the obit of somebody fairly insignificant allows the writer to tell the story of a much more interesting person or phenomenon.

In this case, we have the story of Helen Barbara Cohn, aka Bobbie Nudie, whose husband, Nudie Cohn, invented the Nudie suit, favored by singing cowboys and Elvis. It's a great story. Only problem is, it was her husband who was the inventor/designer/promotor. Not that they weren't a business team, but about 75% of this obit could have been lifted directly from his obit, where it more properly belongs.

Nudie died in 1984, and was the subject of a shorter but funny LAT obit, in which the heavily bejeweled fashion mogul revealed inter alia that he had been a manufacturer of G-strings "until the bottom fell out of burlesque."

Still, there's nothing wrong with reminding a new generation of the provenance and glories of Nudie suits, and I would never want to say that LAT, of all papers, should refrain from publishing something amusing.

Marilyln, can you please come up with a witty sobriquet for this phenomenon?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Everlasting Love

It's not unusual for couples who have been married for a long time to die close together, and we've all written obits about that. Holly Crenshaw, an obit writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gave readers a glimpse into the successful 76-year marriage of Mae Smith and her husband Charlie Smith of Jonesboro, GA: She led, he followed, even unto death.

They were in hospital rooms across the hall from each other, and Mr. Smith was expected to die first. Instead, Mrs. Smith died first and Mr. Smith died the next day. His mother, her son said, "was going to take the lead in everything."

This love story was the most viewed and emailed story online at Friday and continues to be in the Top 10 online stories. It's the top viewed story of the month.

Here's the link to

Holly's email address is

An Atlanta radio station read the obit on the air Friday, and a steady stream of emails has been coming to Holly since the double obit was published. It will make you laugh; it will make you cry—at the same time.

Kay Powell

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Ivor Cutler, alt.obituaries and an obit postscript

Amelia Rosner posted some hilarious obits at alt.obituaries that the British papers printed for the late Ivor Cutler, an unlikely cult hero, in early March 2006.

In case you are as clueless as I used to be about alt.obituaries, it's a Google Group devoted to news of the dead. Go to, choose the "groups" option, and type alt.obituaries in the search field. That will take you to alt.obituaries. To find Cutler's obits, put his name in the alt.obits search field.

The bulk of the Cutler obit in The Independent of London was written by Colin Irwin, who I presume is a freelance obit writer like many of the Brit grimsters. His name appears at the end of his text.

Then the obit continues as follows:
Like many others, I had admired Ivor Cutler's stories, told in his graveyard Scottish voice, on Monday Night at Home when in my late teens, writes Caroline Richmond. I met him on computer dat-ing in 1966 and we remained good friends for several years.

Caroline Richmond? Our Caroline? Writer of obits for internationally known physicians, scientists and medical researchers? Identifiable at obituary writers conferences by her red Harry Potter glasses flanked by the letters L and K to form the word LOOK?

Yes. That's the one.

"When Ivor died, I emailed the Independent and said that I wasn't the best person to do him, but if they didn't get a better offer I could have a crack," Caroline wrote in response to my query. "They did have a better offer, so my additional comments were tacked on at the end. I was pleased about that."

I'm pleased about it too. All of the Cutler obits printed in publications across the pond offer glorious descriptions of this eccentric humorist, songwriter and poet. Caroline's mini-memoir offers details the others don't.

Like this:
I once went to watch him teaching at Fox primary school in Notting Hill Gate. He played "God Save the Queen" in boogie on the piano and got the children to sing it (difficult). Then he stopped the piano with some crashing chords and asked, glaring with feigned disapproval, "Who sang 'God shave the Queen'?" No one owned up, of course, because no one had. He ticked them off and restarted. Whereupon, of course, they all sang it.

I love her references to his graveyard Scottish voice and his wearing a straw hat that a donkey would have rejected.

Kudos, Caroline!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006