Sunday, July 08, 2007

Making mistakes and writing obits for Alfred alumni

Several weeks ago, I spoke to a genealogical group and stressed the importance of accuracy in obits.

One elderly fellow asked, "What do you do when you make a mistake? Like the one you made in today's paper?"

It was just a typo, but it was embarrassing. I gave the man's year of birth as 1927, when it was really 1917. The man in the audience noted the date of birth and the year I had written for the dead guy's graduation from college and said, "He must have been a genius to graduate at such a young age."

I had to write a correction which in Plain Dealer style pointed out that it was the reporter's error. Yes, it was my fault initially, but several editors read the obits before they get printed. It was the kind of error that could have been caught.

I thought that was bad. But I topped it a few days after returning from the obituary writers confab at Alfred (N.Y.) University to the North Coast (that would be the northern part of Ohio that borders Lake Erie).

In a previous blog item that shared reports on the 9th Great Obituary Writers Conference in Alfred, Steve Miller wrote in the comments that he was in the process of writing an obituary for the New York Sun about someone who had graduated from Alfred University.

Curiously, I too had just written an obit for an Alfred alumnus for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. Weird, huh?

Anyway, Ms. Know-It-All (that would be me) noted that the family friend who compiled obit info said that Alfred was in "upstate New York." And as we learned during our stay in that college town, Alfred is in the "southern tier." But "southern tier" of what, I'm not sure. To me, it was not "upstate."

So I decided to provide directions to Alfred. Again, a typo. I wrote that Alfred was in "southeastern New York state," when I meant to say "southwestern," which still would have been wrong, because it's sort of in the south-central portion of the state.

I wrote to Dave Snyder, our Alfred host, to share my tale and poke fun at myself. To my surprise, Dave told me that I misunderstood the meaning of "upstate New York."

If you look at a map of the state, New York City is in the southeastern tail. Every other part of the state is further north or "upstate," even places like Buffalo, which are essentially on the state's western border.

So the family friend was correct. And my error was compounded, making me feel like an even bigger idiot.

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