Saturday, April 25, 2015

A word about obituaries...

Old-school journalists at work
New York Times News Room circa 1949–Source: Wikipedia 
By Jim Heffernan
I heard still another journalist disparage obituary writing the other day on the radio. I say “another journalist” because that’s what they always do when they go on to bigger and better things in newspaper work.

“Yeah, I got stuck writing obits at the Dry Socket, Montana, Clarion when I first started out,” they say after winning the Pulitzer Prize several years later.

Obituary writing is to journalism what carrying a pail and shovel behind the elephants in a circus parade is to show business, in the minds of most journalists.  

I “got stuck” writing obits when I started out writing for the Duluth daily newspapers, but I seldom minded. I often enjoyed it when someone of note or had led an interesting life passed on to his or her reward.

No one person did all of the obits when I was a young reporter. Everyone on the staff got involved, usually when switchboard operators or city editors directed morticians’ calls to staffers who were not otherwise occupied. In those ancient times, a half-century ago, most obituaries were dictated by undertakers to reporters over the telephone.

And while others grumbled when they got stuck, I didn’t mind. It was a bit of a challenge to turn the obituary of an ordinary person into something a little special, hopefully notable. The morticians just gathered the facts from family members; it was up to us to turn the material into readable prose.

I have written obituaries for local luminaries, civic leaders, movers and shakers, politicians, shady characters and hundreds of regular folks whose only mention in the newspaper in their entire lives was their obit. And, yes, I have written them for friends and relatives.

All of this took place for me long before the newspaper began charging for obituaries, as it does today. Obits are now considered the same as advertising so that what appears is written by families or undertakers forwarding the words of survivors to non-journalists. Thus, in some current obits you read that certain decedents have already been accepted into heaven where they have been reunited with loved ones who have gone before, and so forth. Angels are often involved.

Does anybody get sent in the other direction? Not in the obituaries.

This sort of hyperbole was not allowed when the news department wrote the obits. We had certain rules about how they should be written, including information on the person’s educational background, career, organization memberships, religious affiliations and military service, together with immediate survivors. Often there was room to word them in such a way that the most ordinary person seemed at least somewhat special, if for no other reason than longevity.

You can say what you want however you want to say it today when paying for the obit of a family member, but I think the more formal journalistic way was better – more respectful (but not as profitable). Do you really want your “flour-legged friends Rover and Fido” as survivors in the final accounting of your life?

I haven’t done it yet, but I think I have one more journalistic obituary left in me. My own. I’ll get to it one of these days.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Duluth's First 'Saltie' Arrives...

For all you lovers of our Lake Superior port, you're likely aware that the Port of Duluth not only sees lots of ore carriers and fresh water vessels entering its harbor, but also welcomes many ocean-going vessels as well. Yesterday marked the arrival of the shipping season's first "saltie," about a month early this year.

"Saltie" does not refer to the stuff your doctor tells you to stay away from. It refers to the ocean going vessels who begin their journey at the Atlantic Ocean and travel through the Great Lakes to our Lake Superior port city of Duluth. The ocean-going ship, the Kom, passed through the  the fully raised Aerial Lift Bridge and the canal to enter the Duluth Harbor at about noon yesterday, April 13.

It's always exciting to mark the beginning of the shipping season and especially exciting to see those big "salties" grace our harbor. It's a sure sign of spring in Duluth. You can see the video of the Kom traveling through the canal at the Duluth News Tribune web site HERE. And you can read more about it at Minnesota Public Radio HERE.

Taken from
And, yes, I'm back home in Duluth from our southerly winter vacation. Stay tuned... I promise to write more very soon.