McGisms, Dry-Ice Funerals and Journalism’s Salvation

July 28, 2016

by Craig Ladwig

You reach an age when you begin to repeat yourself, telling your best stories over again to the pained faces of friends and loved ones. Some of my stories are the exploits of a tobacco-chewing, free-range reporter who mentored me early in my career.

He came to mind this week reading some rare good news for the hard-pressed newspaper industry — obituary readership is gaining on the rest of the paper. The latest report from the Pew Research Center finds that while readership of the news section declined 7 percent from 2014 to 2015, obituary readership held steady.

There is a reason for that. Obituaries, if this former obit writer can be trusted, traditionally were the best-written stories in the newspaper. They were in fact about life and not death, and on many days were the only articles in the paper where character, tenacity and achievement were showcased, not to mention factual reportage free of agenda or slant.

Until the recent waves of staff cuts, the obit desk of a metropolitan daily was an assignment where young talent could master the most obscure rules of the stylebook, gain a fanatical respect for accuracy and be free to fully exercise a curiosity for people, history and the social construct.

Today, in many cases, obituaries are written perfunctorily by the office staff at a funeral home, which pays the newspaper a fee collected from the bereaved.

“History has not been kind to the beat,” says Adam Bernstein, obituaries editor for the Washington Post. “But I really do regard it as one of the most important jobs on the paper. We’re different from other parts in that we’re often writing about stuff that was important 40, 50, 60 years ago. Our chief goal is trying to bring it alive in a compelling, fair and vivid way.”

A model for these skills, if not the obit breed in particular, is a friend and mentor, James J. Fisher, legendary reporter for the Public Broadcasting Service and the old Kansas City Star. For Fisher, an obituary could expand into a 1,000-word, front-page, above-the-fold story demonstrating his keen eye for the quirk of personality and the twist of fate.

Jim famously covered the “funeral” of Mrs. Gladys Rogers, a southern Missouri woman, in dry ice, who for an hour and a half before a crowd of 200 was the subject of an attempted resurrection:

“‘Get up,’ yelled the Reverend J.T. Williams, a Pea Ridge, Arkansas, evangelist who describes himself as a ‘reformed’ gambler and saloon owner. ‘Come out of there,’ urged the Rev. Harold Bogan, an associate of Rogers. ‘Raise her up,’ Rogers pleaded. It was to no avail. After 90 minutes, Rogers appeared in the chapel and announced, ‘We have done everything we can think of and it hasn’t worked. We aren’t giving up but we have no immediate plans on what we are going to do.’”

Fisher’s attention to detail included his observation that the frozen Mrs. Rogers was resting in a chest-type freezer (with legs), not the portable kind that sat directly on the floor. “The family felt that style of appliance was more ‘decorous,’” Fisher explained.

But the master of this genre, according to Jim, was Robert (McG) Thomas, Jr., the immortal — if you will allow the word — obit writer for the New York Times.

A sample of McG’s work, published in “Fifty-Two McGs,” a collection of his obituary writing, includes a profile of an intrepid early-day pilot with an anti-government streak. The piece is quoted at length here to preserve the author’s insight into the “cosmic joke that is human nature.” As always, it is related in the style of the natural-born storyteller with the black armband sitting on the next stool at the corner tavern:

“Douglas Corrigan, a brash, errant aviator who captured the imagination of a Depression-weary public in 1938 when he took off from Brooklyn on a nonstop solo flight to Los Angeles and landed his improbable airplane in Dublin a day later, died on Saturday at a hospital in Orange, Calif. He was 88 and had been lionized for more than half a century as Wrong Way Corrigan.

The few people who were at Floyd Bennett Field when Mr. Corrigan took off at 5:15 on the morning of July 17, 1938, were baffled when the 31-year-old aviator turned into a cloud bank and disappeared to the east.

“According to his flight plan, he should have been heading west.

“As they and the world learned when his jerry-built, overloaded secondhand airplane touched down at Dublin’s Baldonnel Airport 28 hours and 13 minutes later, Mr. Corrigan had not only known what he was doing, he had also flown straight into the hearts of the American people.

“‘I’m Douglas Corrigan,’ he told a group of startled Irish airport workers who gathered around him when he landed. ‘Just got in from New York. Where am I?’

“Although he continued to claim with a more or less straight face that he had simply made a wrong turn and been led astray by a faulty compass, the story was far from convincing, especially to the American aviation authorities who had rejected his repeated requests to make just such a flight because his modified 1929 Curtiss-Robin monoplane was judged unworthy of more than an experimental aircraft certification.

“Unmoved by evidence that he had not checked weather reports for the North Atlantic before his flight and had carried charts showing only his supposedly planned route to California, the authorities deemed his plane so unsafe and his flight so illegal that it took a 600-word official telegram to detail all the regulations he had violated.”

The lesson we journalists can learn from McG and Fisher and the obituaries desk? Well, on many days their work was the only place in the paper where character, tenacity and achievement were showcased, not to mention objective reporting free of agenda or slant.

Or did I mention that already?

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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