Friday, September 29, 2006

Engraved on headstone in Montreal

Not really obituary-related, but funny and sort of on-topic.

The Itsy Bitsy Fraud

There's been a lot of ink spilled over the past week about the erroneously-reported death of Paul Vance, the songwriter of "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," a song that idiotically replays itself in my head each time I see it referenced.

I have a small role this drama, which I'll get to below.

It turned into a pretty great story because the corpse - there actually was a dead guy - had been telling friends and family for years that he was the author of the song. Why, nobody knows. Vicarious thrill, maybe.

The real Paul Vance lives in Coral Springs, Fla., and has recently been receiving $100,000 a month in royalties for his song, which is being used in a yoghurt commercial. But now he has been making ominous threats to sue the AP etc., family members are telling the press that they suspect that the fraudulent Paul Vance, whose name was Paul Van Valkenburgh, was trying to steal Vance's royalties, etc. What a bunch of crabs!

The original obit ran in the Danbury, Conn., News-Times on Sept. 26. It was then posted by some excellent person to alt.obituaries, the Usenet newsgroup that many of us monitor.

Here is a link to that original report.

My part in this story was that I then sent it to an editor at the AP who does obituaries, and she got it on the wire on Tuesday night, Sept. 26.

The AP obit ran in papers around the world - in fact some lazy editors didn't even notice the correction - the Birmingham Post ran it in Thursday's paper.

The corrections ran widely, too - the AP produced a good, tight recap on Wednesday, which was substantially recapitulated by the NYTimes. Other news organizations around the country did their own stories, interviewing the relatives and probably everybody they could find who ever heard the song - who could resist? (I leave it to the reader to discover the corrections and follow-ups.)

I am told that the Danbury News-Times ran a front-page story on its error in Thursday's paper. Unfortunately, its website is virtually unusable and it doesn't make it onto Nexis. I have a call into the original reporter, who I am guessing wishes this would all go away. I don't. It goes into the hopper with Mark Twain and Alfred Nobel. And Dorothy Fay Ritter.

And Katharine Sergava, the dancer whom the NYTimes erroneously reported dead in 2003. It happens that the Sergava case comes up in a lengthy, whiggish interview with NYTimes obituaries editor Bill McDonald. Read it


The rest of this little essay is a tangent inspired by the Vance case and McDonald’s interview.

The Sergava case happened before McDonald's watch, but it was a particularly wretched case of journalistic malpractice - it was lifted straight from the London Telegraph, with no checking. Extra bad, because Sergava supposedly died in the USA. On the other hand it was a nice obit, and a lot more extensive than the obit the Times ran two years later when Sergava actually died (apparently!) To its credit, the Times never attempted to cover up this error, although it never quite explained it, either. The correction blamed “reporting and editing errors” and claimed it was just a case of “omitted attribution,” as if the Times would ever print an obit attributed solely to the Telegraph. The Times subsequently instituted a policy mandating that every obit have a graf 2 sourcing the story.

What’s irritating about McDonald’s interview is how much like a public utility he wants his page to be.

The mechanical, boring graf 2? McDonald: “From that day forward it has been ironclad policy at the Times to devote the second paragraph of every obit to answering a simple question about a death that every reader is entitled to ask: How do you know — who told you?”

OK, but are you going to do that with every fact in your story? It could be argued that some facts are more important than others, and death is the ultimate personal fact. But where does it end? We have newspapers and reporters so that somebody will go out and check the facts on our behalf. Yes, we want to be told who sources are, especially of information that could potentially be an opinion or in somebody’s interest. But this feels to me more like ass-covering. As if they are saying, “if this turns out to be untrue, it is not the Times’s fault.” That’s why it feels so bureaucratic and encumbering in the actual obits – it’s like a form you have to fill out, and a way of evading responsibility – almost in this way the opposite of the accuracy that we want in obits.

That original AP obit of Vance had one of those grafs, too: “The New Milford-raised Vance, whose real name was Paul Van Valkenburgh, died Sept. 6 at his home in Ormond Beach, Fla., said his wife of 32 years, Rose Leroux. He had been battling lung cancer for two years.”

The mechanical, boring graf 2 certainly didn’t prevent the error – so what did it accomplish? I guess it allows us to shift blame to Valkenburgh, or to his widow.

Unfortunately, this practice is creeping into obits in general – LATimes does it routinely although the Washington Post doesn’t. The AP does it, but there it is a very good thing because it gives local reporters who want to follow up and expand a story a good head start. In this case it gave reporters a chance to contact Valkenbugh’s widow.

I return to my main point: it is the reporter’s contract with the newspaper and the newspaper’s contract with readers that what is appearing is facts, that efforts have been made to confirm them. But if facts were the only thing at stake, we would not have need for obituarists – just lists of names and facts. We also want a pleasurable read – that’s the whole reason many of us are in this business in the first place. The graf 2 is a real buzz-kill.

One more thing in McDonald’s lengthy (and to be fair occasionally very interesting and smart) interview:

“The 2003 episode confirmed in our minds the need to be as forthcoming with our readers about any given death as we can. That includes reporting the cause. In every obit, no matter how old the subject, we endeavor to give the cause of death, as related to us by reliable sources, like the people we quote in confirming the death.”

But the cause of death is so boring and distracting! Yes, if somebody dies young or in an interesting way. But how is it “information” that somebody died of a heart attack rather than a stroke? And aren’t their different kinds of heart attacks? Why is it “lung cancer” in one obit and just plain “cancer” in another? Often-times somebody has had “terminal” cancer, then dies from an opportunistic infection like pneumonia. In what sense is it a fact that he died of pneumonia? It is a bureaucratic fact – the one that appears on the death certificate. But the real fact may be that the decedent was bed-ridden for years. That might be something worth talking about in an obit – for instance in talking about why a public person suddenly stops being public a few years before death. But such information very seldom appears.

Again, the McDonald interview:

“[S]ome papers, particularly in Britain, still cling to their Victorian sense of decorum by unilaterally withholding the cause of death. We're in the business of reporting what we know, when it's confirmed, not withholding it. And in reporting on a death, which is news, we think the cause is eminently germane. A reporter who writes a story about a train wreck without saying how it happened wouldn't last long in this line of work.”

Oh puh-leez – the self congratulation is hyperoleaginous. If you don’t know five times more facts than appear in your article, you’re not doing your job. The whole craft of writing is as much about deciding what to leave out as deciding what to leave in – like sculpture. Yes, when Edward Albert dies at 55 it is worth knowing he had lung cancer, and more amusingly, in Claire Martin’s great obit last week of Thomas Cook, that the accident-prone guy died by being run over by a car (thought I wanted more details: was it a RED car?)

I recommend everybody go and read the McDonald interview – it’s a peep inside the dusky boudoir of Times obits. But don’t expect to come away terribly stimulated.

As for Vance – all of this could have been avoided by a call to his co-writer, but that might be a bit much to ask on deadline, which is how the story was written. This was tricky one. Sometimes errors happen. You get false positives in statistical studies – five percent of the time with two standard deviations. This is considered reliable in sociology. Obituarists do a hell of a lot better than that reporting deaths – without the mechanical, boring graf 2.

Monday, September 25, 2006

"Died Doing What He Loved"

Why do (some) obit writers do that?? It's so aggravating.
I agree with Kathy Kemp of the Birmingham (Ala.) News ... (no link available, posted on alt.obits)
and Trevor Brown, former journalism dean, Indiana University (posted 9/25 on Romenesko's Web site)

Living Doing What You Love Is The Best
FROM: The Birmingham (Alabama) News ~ By Kathy Kemp
I don't know if you've noticed this, but often, when a person dies unexpectedly - especially while mountain climbing, skydiving or flying solo over the Bermuda triangle - we're told he "died doing what he loved."
Latest example: Steve Irwin, Australia's intrepid and beloved crocodile hunter, killed Monday when a stingray pierced his heart while Irwin filmed a TV segment in the Great Barrier Reef. Immediately, news organizations reported Irwin had "died doing what he loved."
They were quoting Irwin's manager, John Stainton, who added that Irwin "left this world in a happy and peaceful state of mind."
Stainton meant well, of course. But let's take a moment to think about this. Irwin spoke often of his love of family, of conservation and of reptiles and sea creatures. He never mentioned a desire to yank a stingray's barb from his chest and then gasp a final breath.
Go to Google and type in "died doing what he loved" and you'll get 1,290,000 responses (type in "doing what she loved" and you'll net 423 more). Those words are spoken about soldiers killed in Iraq and grandfathers who dropped dead of heart attacks while playing baseball with the kids.
The news media sometimes promote the cliché. A reporter for The Register Guard in Eugene, Ore., didn't rely on friends or family to speak the dreaded words: "Jane Vanneman Higdon died doing what she loved," declares the first sentence on a story in June detailing how Higdon had fallen off her bike and been hit by a truck.
Friends told the reporter that Higdon, 47, loved her husband, endurance sports and her job as a nurse. None mentioned that she looked forward to being crushed by a loaded logging truck.
When extreme skier Douglas Coombs was killed in May in a skiing accident, NPR commentator Alex Markels started a tribute to Coombs by saying, "There's probably no obituary more admiring of a man than to say that he died doing what he loved."
I don't know of any research confirming that dying happy equals dying well, but lots of people clearly want to believe it. In Tennessee just last week, 25-year-old Kristin Reese, a member of a women's football team, died in a motorcycle accident. Her coach, Steve Lewis, couldn't help himself. "She died doing what she loved. I hope I can die doing what I love, and I hope everybody else can too," he said.
Fewer of us seem content anymore just to say a prayer and mourn the dead. We live in exciting times that require exciting endings. Perhaps human nature dictates our search for meaning in tragedy, whether it involves a famous adventurer, an astronaut or a friend's ill mother. We don't want to think that the dead might have suffered or perhaps wished, in those final moments, to celebrate another birthday, to drive the kids to school tomorrow or to hunt for exotic creatures in another ocean on another day.
The truth is, if we're lucky, we live doing what we love. If we're blessed, our lives have meaning that transcends how we die.
And if you ask me, that's enough.

----and -------

From: Trevor Brown, Former journalism dean, Indiana University
After yanking a limb driven into the lawn like a javelin and then heaving it into the neighbor's yard, I wondered again at Steve Irwin's death. "He left this world in a peaceful and happy state of mind," a fellow snorkeler said, "doing what he loved best." I doubt that, in the moments after the stingray's barb pierced his heart, Irwin was in a peaceful and happy state of mind. But I'm sick of the unctuous bromide that so-and-so died doing what he loved best.It could happen that a plunging limb from the trees at the bottom of our garden will take me out while I'm mowing. Yes, I enjoy mucking about on my John Deere LT133. But, please, please, I've told my wife and children, no line in my obituary, "He died doing what he loved best." I've implored them to edit an obituary like this:
Trevor Brown, 69, died Monday in his home. His wife, Charlene, found him slumped over on a couch in the living room, a victim, apparently, of a heart attack while doing the New York Times crossword. Preliminary speculation is that he was entering an answer to 9-across -- "One making a point at church?" -- when he succumbed. He had written only "E-L" to the five-letter answer and still clutched his favorite pencil, a 0.7 Pentel with a large eraser. Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword, said, "I met Trevor Brown only once during a visit some years ago to Indiana University and did not learn that he was a crossword fan until after his death. Then I was surprised to discover that a faculty member at my alma mater was rarely able to get beyond Monday's crossword, the least challenging of the week's puzzles, until I was told he was a dean. It must be of great comfort to the family that Dean Brown died doing what he loved best. By the way, the answer to 9-across in this Monday's puzzle was SPIRE."Coaches like you should urge obit writers to resist the quote of comfort from well-meaning family and friends. I say, go for "The horror! The horror!"

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How they lived their 100-plus years

Nothing is sadder than an obit for a centenarian, which says little more than "This person lived a really long time."

I recently wrote an obit that ran in The Plain Dealer on Aug. 16, 2006, for Florence Homan, who had been the oldest person in Ohio. Age 112. A lot of years, and yet there was little more for me to say about her.

She had outlived her husband. She had no children. The "next of kin," who handled her funeral arrangements, was a stepsomething-in-law of a relative of her husband's a few times removed.

The only story about her that I could find in our archives was written a few months earlier when the previous oldest-person-in-Ohio died. It was more about centenarians in general than it was about Florence in particular.

I put together a short obit that said she:
(1)was born Florence Wilker on Nov. 18, 1893, in Middleburg Township, more than 30 years before the area was incorporated as the village of Middleburg Heights;
(2)grew up on a farm;
(3)had an 8th-grade education;
(4)worked for Higbee's department store as a seamstress for more than 50 years;
(5)married a railroad worker, who was 10 years her junior, in 1941;
(6)lived most of her life in Cleveland in a house that was torn down to make way for the construction of an interstate highway;
(7)moved to the suburbs;
(8)was widowed in 1988;
(9)and moved into a nursing home at age 105.

That's actually a lot more than I could dig up about other centenarians, who have died on my watch. I have to believe there was much more to tell about Florence. I just couldn't find people or documentation that could help me get it together on deadline.

Bryan Marquard's obit for artist Polly Thayer Starr, which ran in the Sept. 3, 2006, edition of the Boston Globe shows a centenarian, who lived a fascinating 101 years.

Polly had children and friends with sundry details about her New England ancestry, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson and a host of Episcopalian ministers, her art training and career, marriage and motherhood.

And the Smithsonian Institution had interviewed her 11 years before her death.

Bryan was able to gather a considerable amount of information about this centenarian. And he selected terrific facts and quotes that made this a delightful obit to read.

He included details about her work - portraits that range from literal to ethereal; to landscapes illuminating the spirit of a milieu; to a series of paintings capturing the life span of a thistle - that illustrate the depth of her art.

And this revealing quote from Polly's Smithsonian interview: "I was pretty gun-shy of marriage when it would mean giving up painting. . . . It took a long time to make up my mind."

Here are more gems:

"You never achieve what you want," she told a friend late in life, "but you're always getting nearer to the essence . . . and that's a search that is all important."

From one of her daughters: "She could pat bumblebees. While he was on the flower, she would take her finger and stroke his fur and his wings would buzz like mad, and he wouldn't fly away until she stopped. It always seemed to me the equivalent of a cat's purr."

She became a Quaker and ventured away from home, seeking new inspiration. She attended wrestling matches and was invited into an operating room to watch surgery, telling a friend that "to see the living organs pushing up uncovered out of a woman's body . . . I forgot everything in the wonder of it."

Then, in her 70s, she developed glaucoma and macular degeneration. Before completely losing her sight, her final works in her late 80s were drawings of a thistle and a diaphanous self-portrait that seemed to place her both in this world and the next.

Bryan ended the story with this: The pull of creativity, she told the Smithsonian, never ceases. "It's the Hound of Heaven," she said with a chuckle. "It's always after you."

Please share your favorite centenarian-obit stories and tips on how to gather info about the dearly departed, whose family and friends are long departed.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Eugene Crawford, physiology/biophysics professor, boxing champ

I love Gerry Hostetler's "It's a Matter of Life" column that runs in the Charlotte Observer.

In her Aug. 30, 2006, column about the late Eugene Carson "Gene" Crawford Jr., a retired University of Kentucky physiology and biophysics professor and Golden Gloves Hall of Fame boxer, Gerry chooses a fascinating subject and uses quotes that make you want to smile.

She writes: Gene was well-known in the Carolinas for his boxing ability, but even better known nationally for his physiological research. . . His academic career is stellar.

Crawford studied with eminent physiologist Knut Schmidt-Nielsen at Duke University.

"He spoke glowingly of going to Australia with Schmidt-Nielsen and studying camels and ostriches," said son-in-law Tracy Campbell.

Early in the piece, Gerry quotes Carl Holt, a Golden Gloves HOF board member: "Looking at him, you didn't think he was a boxer, but he was a good little ol' fighter."

She gives a detailed record of Crawford's impressive (30 wins, 1 draw, four losses) but brief (1949-1952) boxing career. More than half of his wins were by knockout.

Gene joined the Navy and promptly fought and defeated the brigade champion. After his discharge, he fought four professional fights and won them. He was invited to try out for the 1952 U.S. Olympic trials, but did not accept. He was about to marry sweetheart Helen Suggs, whom he spotted at a public park in Durham.

Then comes this nifty quote from Crawford's sister: "He was about 18 and she was ... very pretty."

Later in life, Crawford's wife developed Pick's disease, which cost her the ability to speak. When Gene began losing his sight, folks asked how they would manage life together. "I will take care of Helen and Helen will be my eyes," he answered.

And so she was, until her death five years ago. And Gene was a good little ol' fighter, right up to the end.

Excellent ending, Gerry!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Obit for 2-year-old, platform for discussing palliative care for babies

In her Aug. 29, 2006, Lifelines column in the Toronto Star, Catherine Dunphy tells the story of Sasha Bella, 2-year-old daughter of Pamela Stein and Jonathan Blumberg, who spent most of her brief life dying.

Cathy showed Sasha's kiddie qualities. She writes the sick baby was noisy, intense, passionate, and she loved an audience.

While strangers may have seen that her skin was jaundiced and her belly distended, What her parents saw were her long fingers that could turn fragile pages in a telephone book without tearing them, her love of chips, crushed ice and watermelon toothpaste, the way she danced in her crib to Stevie Wonder, the big grin with which she'd greet her dad, how she would slap her forehead as if to say "Oy vey."

The writer explained Sasha's illness in layman's terms:
Born with a complex and very serious form of the rare Alagille Syndrome and a paucity of bile ducts causing bleeding and relentless internal itching, Sasha was missing the connection from her heart to her lungs.

It's clear that Cathy and Sasha's parents used this obit to tell readers that palliative care is for babies too and that To honour her, Stein and Blumberg have set up the Sasha Bella Fund through the Sick Kids Foundation to explore ways to support the parents — and perhaps some staff — of dying babies and children in a hospital geared and better suited to miracles.