Saturday, March 31, 2018


It was somewhat young crop of those who were given tribute obituaries in Thursday's NYT. Two full pages, five obits. And I'm older than 4 of the 5 freshly deceased.

There are those who joke that they know they're alive when they pick up the paper and don't read that they're dead. That's a bit presumptuous. As if their passing will be noticed for a readership to read about.

But here are the four whose time on earth will forever be less than mine.

Spread across two solid pages of text and photos (no ads) were obituaries for Philip Kerr, 62, a Scottish author best known for creating a German detective who lives and works during the Nazi era in Germany. Apparently the novels were so popular that when Mr. Kerr stopped writing about his character Bernie Gunther for 15 years, fans of the character couldn't stop asking him when was there was going to be another installment. Certainly sounds like Canon Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.

Relenting to popular demand, Mr. Kerr again started writing about Gunther. I have to say I never heard of his novels, but I am now interested since this seems to be the kind of book I enjoy the most. And a private detective in Nazi Germany who hates the Nazis, is too appealing not to take in at least once. I never thought of there being a private detective during this era.

Nancy McFadden, 59 a political adviser to President Clinton and California's Governor Jerry Brown passed away from ovarian cancer.

Ms. McFadden was an extremely influential and trusted adviser, certainly the influence behind the throne, whose name was anything but a household name.

Saba Mahmood, 57, a Pakistani scholar of feminism and its intersection with the Muslim faith. She had pancreatic cancer.

Given that 5 obituaries popped up and took two pages, I was tempted to skip some. I wanted to show myself some progress in whittling down the pile of newsprint that magically grows in my living room.

I thought Ms. Mahmood was one I could skip, but a glance at a few of the paragraphs drew me in, and I read all of her obit as well. She was apparently a respected scholar who was trying to research Islam and its hold on political states. She had an uphill battle being listened to.

Arnold Hirsch, 69, who documented the origin of black ghettos in Chicago passed away due to complications of Parkinson's disease. He too was an academic whose research and views were considered a standard to be referred to.

The fifth, and the one obit for someone older than myself, was for Mel Rosen, 90, a legendary track coach whose team members won 20 medals at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. I have to say the name didn't ring a bell, but the described events about the composition of the men's 1992 relay teams did.

The one thing about reading obituaries of those who are younger than myself sometimes make me wonder what did I ever accomplish? Certainly looking back there is no notoriety that I will ever be noted for that would justify a NYT tribute obit.

But that's okay, because certainly of  all the people who pass away every day, there are only a select few who we get to read about. And an even further select few who make it to the front page, above the fold, or straddling it, or firmly below it.

I sometimes imagine I've taken a journalism class and the instructor has assigned us the task of writing our own obituary. How would it go? I'm aware that Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Luck Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries at one point taught a journalism class at Columbia that had Margalit Fox, a NYT obituary writer in attendance. She remembers she had talent. She does.

So, how would I start? I'm not going past the lede. "...passed away...on...thinking that dying, like so many things in life, reminded him of something, but he was unable to share it since dying got in the way of telling anyone what it was.

What would be a summary of the events in the life of...?

Since Billy Joel and I are about he same age, I've been alive for all the events in his song 'We Didn't Start the Fire." I remember them all.

I remember being in the classroom in P.S. 22 in Flushing when the teacher asked us to stand up and say a prayer for the recovery of President Eisenhower, who had just suffered one of his heart attacks.  Imagine that: prayer in a New York City public school.

I remember the reaction the country had to Russia's success launching the satellite Sputnik. It was a national wake up call. I remember telling my mother I was going to grow up and be a scientist and outdo them. Well, that didn't happen.

Reading a book review of a recent biography of Ike I was surprised to read he suffered 6 heart attacks, but was of course there to pass the presidency onto JFK in 1961, an inauguration I remember watching on TV, almost  laughing at the top hats being worn.

I remember 'Duck and Cover' of course, drills that had us seeking cover under our desks, facing away from the windows that were surely going to be blasted open when an atomic bomb hit. It was the Duck and Cover drill that had me backing away from the window near my cubicle on the 27th floor in the World Trade Center, Tower One on 9/11 when the first plane hit. No glass exploded for me, but I continued backing up and eventually went down the staircase to safety. I figured whatever it was that made the building shake would be repaired soon and I'd then go back and get my things. I was wrong about that one.

Of course today students, my grandchildren included, do 'Active Shooter Drills.' Growing up and getting older has always been filled with peril. Pete Hamill wrote in an anthology of obituaries "that life is the leading cause of death."

I've lived through a workplace shooting just a little more than a year after 9/11 that left three dead, including the suicide of the shooter. The two victims were co-workers, one of whom was a 36 year-old woman with two school age children who I used to tell was going to live to see some of her girls' classmates pass on from something. How could anyone predict that she'd be the one to pass on in the fashion she did.

I've so far lived through 13 presidencies; one assassinated, one who resigned, one impeached, and two who were father and son. I have no idea how many more administrations I'll be around for. I once read of someone living through 18. But that was quite a while ago. Deaths in office can help the count grow high.

No matter what happens from here on in, I've covered a lot of territory. And already more than some.

1 comment:

  1. John - you will need a larger tombstone to cover all this - and if we can keep current admin short you could live thru number 14 and counting - don't leave too soon. tjs