Tuesday, September 17, 2013

PUT SOME LIFE BACK INTO OBITS

Probably since the first American newspaper began publishing them, obituaries have been among the most popular items with readers. I sometimes think that people open up the paper and immediately go to the obits to make sure their name isn't listed and, if not for that reason, they at least check the deaths to see if anyone they know has passed away.

But, for whatever reason, scientific readership surveys keep showing that obits are immensely popular with readers. Which makes me wonder why newspaper don't try to do more with them these days.

Once upon a time, newspapers who's managers understood the appeal of the obituary page actually strove to put some life into the final notices -- and readers seemed to love it.

When I worked at The Louisville Times in Louisville, Ky., from the early to the mid 70s, we and our sister paper, The Courier-Journal, had a policy that every day's obit page would be led with a well-written "feature obit" -- a piece that expanded on the life and times of one of those who had passed away. Sometimes it was a well known local person, but most of the time it was just an Average Joe Sixpack who was being awarded his 15 minutes of fame after already having shuffled off the mortal coil.

At The Times, we had a master obit writer named Kenny Taylor, a former reporter and city editor who had gotten enough up in years that he no longer desired the stress of the city desk, but was not ready to retire. Kenny was about as old school as you could find in those days, right down to regularly wearing one of those green eyeshades that used to be so omnipresent in old-time newsrooms.

Kenny was a wonderful writer who would carefully select his feature obit subject after reading all of the incoming obits and then get on the phone and work magic with a whirlwind of pre-Google fact and information gathering and checking. His subjects included former mayors and congressmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, auto mechanics, career criminals and janitors -- anyone whose basic obit information piqued his interest. He would make calls to family members, friends, co-worker, enemies, bosses, anyone who could provide a picture of what the deceased's life had been like and what sort of person they had been. Then -- sometimes after conducting almost as many interviews (albeit, brief interviews) as some reporters would do for an investigative story -- Taylor would craft a daily masterpiece that could make you laugh or cry or shake your head in disbelief, but would always leave you feeling that you had personally known the deceased. It was, for sure, an art form with him, it made him every readers' favorite Louisville Time writer. In fact, among our subscribers, Kenny may have had best known name on staff.

Today, that art form has become largely lost from newspapers in which obituaries are no longer a final tribute to the lives of people in the community, but just one more potential revenue source. Obits once were entirely free and now they are almost entirely paid and often are little more than essentially a category of classified ads that readers still turn to despite the fact that they are dull, dry and lifeless and all too often written by funeral directors who have no writing skills or understanding of grammar and newspaper style.

So, needless to say, I was thrilled last week when a recent obituary from The Savannah Morning News started making the social media rounds. I became acquainted with it when a local friend who is a funeral director posted it on his Facebook page, urging all of us to take the time to read it from beginning to end. I did, and found it to be a masterwork that is well-written, humorous and a real tribute and memorial to the dearly departed William Freddie McCullough. Even though it does have a tendency to be more than slightly sexist, it is still a wonderful read. For those of you who haven't seen it, here it is in its entirety, just as it appeared on the Savannah paper's website:

                                                                                                                                                            William Freddie McCullough - BLOOMINGDALE - The man. The myth. The legend. Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him. William Freddie McCullough died on September 11, 2013. Freddie loved deep fried Southern food smothered in Cane Syrup, fishing at Santee Cooper Lake, Little Debbie Cakes, Two and a Half Men, beautiful women, Reeses Cups and Jim Beam. Not necessarily in that order. He hated vegetables and hypocrites. Not necessarily in that order. He was a master craftsman who single -handedly built his beautiful house from the ground up. Freddie was also great at growing fruit trees, grilling chicken and ribs, popping wheelies on his Harley at 50 mph, making everyone feel appreciated and hitting Coke bottles at thirty yards with his 45. When it came to floor covering, Freddie was one of the best in the business. And he loved doing it. Freddie loved to tell stories. And you could be sure 50% of every story was true. You just never knew which 50%. Marshall Matt Dillon, Ben Cartwright and Charlie Harper were his TV heroes. And he was the hero for his six children: Mark, Shain, Clint, Brandice, Ashley and Thomas. Freddie adored the ladies. And they adored him. There isn't enough space here to list all of the women from Freddie's past. There isn't enough space in the Bloomingdale phone book. A few of the more colorful ones were Momma Margie, Crazy Pam, Big Tittie Wanda, Spacy Stacy and Sweet Melissa (he explained that nickname had nothing to do with her attitude). He attracted more women than a shoe sale at Macy's. He got married when he was 18, but it didn't last. Freddie was no quitter, however, so he gave it a shot two more times. It didn't work out with any of the wives, but he managed to stay friends with them and their parents. In between his many adventures, Freddie appeared in several films including The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd, A Time for Miracles, The Conspirator, Double Wide Blues and Pretty Fishes. When Freddie took off for that pool party in the sky, he left behind his sons Mark McCullough, Shain McCullough and his wife Amy, Clint McCullough and his wife Desiree, and Thomas McCullough and his wife Candice; and his daughters Brandice Chambers and her husband Michael, Ashley Cooler and her husband Justin; his brothers Jimmie and Eddie McCullough; and his girlfriend Lisa Hopkins; and seven delightful grandkids. Freddie was killed when he rushed into a burning orphanage to save a group of adorable children. Or maybe not. We all know how he liked to tell stories.

I don't know this for sure, but I'd be willing to bet that the McCullough obit may have been the single best read thing in that day's edition of The Savannah Morning News. And, as far as I can tell, it likely is the only thing from the Savannah daily, at least in recent years, that has gone virtually viral on social media where I have seen it now posted by numerous people on Facebook and tweeted and retweeted many times on Twitter, making William Freddie McCullough -- once just an Extraordinary Joe Sixpack to his friends in tiny Bloomingdale, Ga. -- a national and maybe even international celebrity.

To my way of thinking, at a time when even "community" newspapers are struggling to maintain the hearts and minds of their readers, wonderfully written feature obits -- like William Freddie McCullough's or those once produced by Kenny Taylor for The Louisville Times -- could be a powerful draw. They can be a wonderful tribute to an interesting, though perhaps virtually unknown, person and can go a long way to saying we understand the people and communities we serve.

Of course, I would not feel comfortable recommending the concept of putting life back into obits if I did not also offer a word of caution. There is such a thing as being overly eager.

When I was a reporter for the now long defunct Bloomington (Ind.) Tribune during my last semester of college at Indiana University, we entrusted the obits to high school part-timer who wanted desperately to become a reporter someday. That desire drove him to constantly strive to put some life into the obits, especially if he could give them a news edge. Unfortunately, his work was none to closely supervised or edited. After all, how big a problem could an obit be, right?

Well, one morning a Ford Mustang crashed into a ditch in front of our building on the outskirts of town and flipped over, killing the teenage girl driver. Our obit writer dashed outside to watch the rescue operation and after the girl's body had been pulled from the wreckage, he reached inside the car and got the registration from the where it was contained in a case clipped onto the visor. He took down the owner's name and address, replaced the registration and then dashed inside to check the Criss-Cross directory. He quickly discovered that the owner -- the dead girl's father -- worked in management at the factory just across the street and made a fast phone call, getting to the dad before he had been contacted by police or his wife. The obit writer then hurriedly wrote the obit and got it in in time for that afternoon's edition. Unfortunately, no one but him read the obit before it was published and this paragraph appeared high up in the final notice:

"When informed of his daughter's death Mr. Smith (not the real name) said, 'You've got to be joking.' The joke, however, was on him." Needless to say, the paper made quick and quiet cash restitution to the grieving family.

-30-


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