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Issue Date: March 2008 Issue


Lives in Past Tense

Pasted on index cards, kept in old folders and now digitized in cyberspace, obituaries have become our writer’s file of mixed souls, reminders of people missing from the city’s familiar corners.
Michael D. Roberts
You can measure the stages of a person’s life by the priority they give the newspaper. The youth dwell on the sports pages, those at the age of awakening read the news, the middle-aged focus on commerce and the elderly turn to the obituaries and death notices.

Some refer to these pages as the Irish Racing Form and take satisfaction in measuring the life spans of the deceased, particularly against theirs.

I’ve fought this trend in reading, but recently when I asked a friend about an acquaintance I thought I had not seen in months, the reply was shocking.

“Didn’t you know?” he said. “Tom died a year ago.” The revelation left me embarrassed and stunned.

When the realization comes that life is down to the two-minute drill, it is only good manners to have an awareness of who recently checked out. It helps to keep the Rolodex current. Few things are worse than calling someone who is dead.

The Internet is even more haunting. An old friend, Doug Warren, died unexpectedly, and his e-mail address was never deleted. I send him greetings in cyberspace from time to time.

It isn’t those who you know the best who escape your awareness. It’s generally those who touched upon your life briefly, and sometimes in the most pedestrian ways, that bring the most poignancy. Twists in life cause you to lose contact with people who you once associated with daily — teachers, for instance.

Each loss, like the poet John Donne
once noted, diminishes us all, and each death notice and obituary is a reminder that sooner or later, the bell will toll for you, too.

It’s funny how a familiar corner in the city can now feel so strange after so many years. It’s because the people you associated with the site are no longer there. It’s eerie.

The other day I was standing in the cold at East Ninth and Euclid and had a sudden recollection of the late Larry Robinson, whose jewelry store was on the corner for years. I was not thinking so much of him as the “Diamond Man,” but as an optimist about the city.

He would caution about pessimism and paint bright over Cleveland’s woes. Nobody does that anymore. The same day, I paused on Public Square at the crosswalk in front of the old May Co. building and remembered the traffic cop there who used his coat as a cape to perform a bullfighter’s veronica on a passing RTA bus.

He’s gone too.

So are the bartenders at the old Rockwell Inn; Eddie Uhas, the Cleveland Browns PR man; Will Richmond, the remarkable photographer; my old boss in Washington, John Peter Leacacos; Dr. Marvin Freeman, who made house calls in his Rolls Royce; the ever truculent lawyer
J. William Petro; the equally ferocious writer Don Robertson; and a host of former colleagues from the days at The Plain Dealer when life seemed endless.

As I write this, the morning paper announces that Rick Zimmerman, who covered Washington and Columbus for so many years, has died. Lung cancer. I can still see Rick taking notes with a phone cupped to his ear and that cigarette dangling from his lip. I can’t finish writing before Carl Delau, the old head of homicide, passes on at 89. He was a great friend to young and bewildered reporters.

I once spent a year going through thousands of death notices pasted on filing cards in the Cleveland Public Library. I was working on a story about what happened to the estates of people who died without any known relatives.

It turned out the Probate Court appointed lawyers who depleted the estates as they searched vainly for relatives. These card files, which were a make-work project during the Depression, enabled one to locate heirs quickly and efficiently.

Today, the death notices are online. What took a year would take just a few days, if that. In a way, the notices represent technological tombstones.

That experience led me to keep a file of obituaries: Clips of people I had known in one capacity or another. I’m not sure why I keep it, but it has become a ritual of remembrance. It’s a file of mixed souls, some famous, others memorable to me for reasons of friendship or incident.

There in The New York Times Magazine’s review of those who had passed in 2007 was a picture of a young woman who I recognized immediately. She had been a reporter for the United Press International in Vietnam. A long time ago, we would pass each other in Saigon and exchange pleasantries, promising we would have coffee one day.

That never happened. She was captured by the Viet Cong and held prisoner for a time, then released. I never saw her again or even thought about her until I saw that picture. The 40 years in between did not lessen the shock of her passing.

When I was a young reporter at The Plain Dealer,I was given a desk next to the obituary editor, a little man who wore a string tie and a silver buckle on his belt. He had clear-framed glasses and walked with mincing steps. He came to work at  3 p.m. and looked grandfatherly.

How his career brought him to the obituary desk, I do not know. He disliked the work and did nothing to conceal his disdain. In fact, the only time I saw him pleased was at Christmastime, when the undertakers filled his desk with bottles of whiskey.

I learned from him that it was best not to die during his dinner hour. Nor was it good to pass away late in the evening as he was preparing to leave. The timing annoyed him, and in his pique, he had no trouble trimming a life to four paragraphs.

He liked to point out that it was better to die earlier in the week than later, as there was less space budgeted for the dead on the weekend. A perfect death, from his perspective, was after 3 p.m. on a Wednesday. It was past the deadline of The Cleveland Press, so he had an exclusive, and five hours before his dinner. There was more space, too, because the food advertising that ran on Thursdays increased the size of the paper.

Clients from upscale funeral homes such as Brown-Forward were favored in those days. Black people rarely appeared in obits. The obituary editor enjoyed making sure that indictments, divorces and other scandals were given proper attention, despite the protests of survivors. He was, in his own mind, the final arbiter in such matters, and I grew to suspect he was taking his displeasure out on the dead.

The only time I recall him being seriously challenged was over the death of a man who had undergone a sex change. The family was embittered over the use of the pronouns in the obituary and vainly demanded the editor be dismissed.

When he died two days before the end of 1974, it was, thankfully, on Plain Dealer time. It was not the best season to go, since the holiday staff was short and untried. They managed, though, and his obit was 26 lines in length with a 24-point headline, a send-off normally given a senior banker or city councilman. The rival Press devoted 11 lines out of professional courtesy. In lieu of a reasonable pension, a newspaperman’s obit is considered part of the benefits package.

Recently, several people asked me to write their obituaries. Interestingly, these obits are not intended for the media, but for the families. Normally, the living do not get to read their obits, and I have not asked how they felt confronting themselves in the past tense.


The obituary always seemed to have a future, even if its subjects did not. You wonder, these days, with newspapers cutting space and staff, whether that future is no longer in print, but in some electronic file or on some Web site.

We may have entered a new age for obits, an age when we post our own on MySpace, avoiding the chance of being eternally ignored because of the pressure of a dinner hour and a shortage of column inches.
It was better to die earlier in the week than later, as there was less space budgeted for the dead on the weekend. A perfect death, from his perspective, was after 3 p.m. on a Wednesday.

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