The Beauty of Life Stories, Well Told

This post first appeared on the Maine Crime Writers blog on February 18, 2019.

I love a well-written obit.

In fact, the obituary section may be why I still subscribe to several newsprint papers, which, unlike their digital cousins, invite me to really read, rather than skim. That’s important when we’re talking mini life stories. Friends, mere acquaintances, total strangers—it doesn’t matter. I want to know what they invented, who they loved, how they made a difference in the world.

As a journalism student I worked at the Boston Globe, initially as a newsroom clerk (we all were called copyboys, even though by the late 1970s some of us were female).

We wrote on these, back in the day.

We wrote on these, back in the day.

One of my duties was to write basic obits. When person died who was moderately famous (or infamous), at least locally, the city editor would assign whichever copyboy wasn’t otherwise occupied to gather information and write it up.

I wasn’t a reporter yet, but was striving to be, so I paid close attention to the newsroom veterans who wrote the feature obituaries. While theirs may not have been the most exciting beat, they were masters at the craft of condensing someone’s life into a respectful, sometimes funny, often poignant short story, usually on a tight deadline. I eavesdropped sometimes while they asked question after question, mining for the nugget of gold that would explain something essential about the subject’s life.

That’s where I learned the important lesson that I’ve carried over into my crime writing: detail illuminates character.

A memorable example of this is in the 2015 obituary of Leon Gorman, the grandson of L.L.Bean, who transformed that iconic Maine company from an outdoor gear store with fewer than 100 employees to a billion dollar business. His obituary talked about his business success, of course, but also about something he didn’t advertise. For a dozen years, Mr. Gorman was late to work every Wednesday because he spent the early-morning hours at Preble Street in Portland, helping to prepare and serve breakfast to hundreds of homeless folks. That telling detail has stayed with me for years.

A few weeks ago, I was moved by the obit for Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, known as the Godmother of Title IX.  After experiencing sex discrimination in the 1960s when she was told she wouldn’t be considered for a position in academia because she came on too strong for a woman, she became the driving force behind the 1972 law that barred discrimination by educational institutions that received federal funding. Title IX is most often talked about in terms of increasing opportunity for women and girls to play sports, but Bunny Sandler’s determination revolutionized the world of education on every level.

Last week, I read in the Globe about Betty Ballantine, who died at 99. Betty and her husband Ian are credited with introducing America to the paperback novel. Starting in 1939 when she was just 20 years old and he was 23, they began to import quality novels in paperback form—popular in Britain but not in the U.S.—and built the enormous market for which we writers remain grateful. Betty and Ian went on to found Bantam Books and Ballantine Books, both now part of Penguin Random House.

On my website I link to a site called Obit of the Day, an amazing compendium of stories about ordinary and extraordinary people. Readers who share my love for a good life story should hop over there and browse. An example of what you will find: On the day after Christmas in 2012, Fontella Bass, whose song Rescue Me has resonated since it first hit the charts in 1965, died after a lifetime making music. According to her obituary, it is a common misconception that Rescue Me was an Aretha Franklin song. Here’s a link to her obit, if you’d like the rest of that story and a link to the song as well:

So here’s to the obituary writers, who manage to capture something of the essence of a person’s life in a few paragraphs, one of those thankless jobs that deserves a sincere salute.

Blog Readers: Do you read the obits? Why or why not? Please let us know in the comments.

Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. She is writing a new series that has as its protagonist a Portland criminal defense lawyer willing to take on cases others won’t touch in a town to which she swore she would never return.

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