Details mark the great writers. Like this tidbit in an obituary by Kay Powell:
In fact, after she was widowed, there were 13 toothbrushes in her bathroom, all kept there by people who regularly enjoyed her company.
The detail tells you about the person who died and shows you why Kay is a journalism treasure.
I crossed paths only twice with Kay, retired obituary writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I don’t have to explain why I consider her a friend from that brief contact, most recently about six years ago. The Society of Professional Obituary Writers explained in the tribute when her peers honored Kay this year with their lifetime achievement award:
She’s the most fun person you could ever hope to hang with at a conference in a far flung city …
That’s how I met Kay. When I am speaking at journalism conferences, I frequently skip the sessions led by other speakers. And I usually bail on convention dinners. It’s not that I’m being aloof. I might need to spend some time in my hotel room catching up on work or writing my next blog post. And I’ll confess to a low interest level in awards dinners where I know I’m not winning anything and don’t even know most of the contenders. For some reason, I caught Kay’s workshop on writing obituaries a few years ago at the New York State Press Association in Saratoga Springs. Then I went to the conference dinner that evening and she spotted me and invited me to sit in the vacant chair next to her.
I’m not a great conversationalist, especially if I don’t know you well yet. But Kay gets to know people quickly. You have to do that when you’re trying to tell someone’s life story and you have to do it today and all your sources are grieving. Kay’s a great journalist because she’s a great listener and a great storyteller. Those same qualities make her an excellent teacher and dinner companion. Her smooth Atlanta drawl tells you a little about her and soon you’re telling her interesting stories about you (or your departed loved one).
Like the time she wrote the obituary for John Doe (yeah, really). Kay charmed this detail from someone:
He was rarely sick, but when he did have to go to the hospital, medical personnel were constantly dropping by his room to check his identity in case he was a famous person seeking anonymity.
Kay appreciates a good detail, whether she wrote the obituary or not. A story in USA Today on a conference of obituary writers told one of the stories I remember from Kay’s workshop in Saratoga Springs, about an obituary a colleague of Kay’s, Holly Crenshaw, wrote on Rosemary Nettleman, “who bred miniature dachshunds but wouldn’t sell you one if she didn’t think you were ‘dog material.’” (I’m not dog material, by the way.)
Kay has been as generous with colleagues as she is sensitive with grieving families. Her tips for interviewing victims of tragedy provide great advice, not only for obit writers but for reporters covering breaking news.
I have no news peg for writing about Kay. This isn’t her obituary. I wouldn’t be worthy to write that, and I’m sure it’s many years distant (her mother lived to 94). I dropped her name last week in a blog post about obituaries and sent her a link in a Facebook message, saying I hoped she was enjoying retirement. Her response was so much fun to read that I wanted to share it:
What a surprise to see my award and me mentioned in your most interesting blog … and to know you haven’t forgotten me all these years later. It’s so nice to be gone but not forgotten. I really appreciate it.
I’ve had such fun in retirement, especially volunteering for interesting projects I didn’t have time for when I was working. The latest is participating on two levels in the Decatur Book Festival, the nation’s largest independent book festival Labor Day weekend.
I volunteer with a writing project between The Wren’s Nest, the home of Joel Chandler Harris that’s now a museum, and 5th graders at a new charter school. 16 of us professional writers are working one-on-one with 16 students to choose a subject, prepare the interviews, write and edit, edit, rewrite, edit and rewrite stories for a book to be promoted at the festival. (Buttry note: I can’t remember the last time I envied a fifth-grader.)
Then, Decatur Book Festival asked me if I would be in a discussion with Kevin Young, who compiled and edited The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, to talk about the emotional aftermath of someone’s death and the rituals around grief and loss. I will consider the discussion a failure if I don’t work into the conversation my dealings with the family of the King of All the World’s Gypsies when his funeral was held here and I wrote his obit.
So nice to hear from you. I hope all is well with you and that you’re having as much fun as I.
I couldn’t find a link to Kay’s obituary on the King of All the World’s Gypsies. But I asked her to send some links of obituaries she wrote. My favorite of the ones she sent was the obit of Claude Miller, which starts:
Claude Miller started his day with some fried streak o’ lean or fatback and a homemade buttered biscuit with brown sugar on it.
Then he set out for a day working at a sawmill, making moonshine and bootlegging on the side.
Mr. Miller’s schoolhouse was the sawmill. His education was how to take a one-hand buck saw, fell a tree and cut off every single limb till it was smooth as butter.
“You could rub the wood and not get a splinter,” said his daughter-in-law Betty Miller of Acworth.
That obit also includes this great line:
He was as wily playing checkers as he was at eluding revenue agents for half his life.
Kay sent some links to more obits:
- PDF pages for obits from the 2008 Society of Professional Obituary Writers awards entries. Kay won the award that year for best body of work and the Arnold Hardy obit won best short form obit on a celebrity.
- “Thelma Hogan‘s family sent me the absolutely perfect picture for her obit. I had already written the article when the picture arrived on my desk and I couldn’t believe how perfect it was.”
- Obit for Joe Nanini, drummer for Wall of Voodoo. “I love that in this obit I got to reveal that Joe shot a gun into a pan to get that whistling spaghetti western sound on lead singer Stan Ridgway’s first solo record.”
- “To my surprise, people still talk about my obituary (run on 1A with huge graphics) for Pluto the Planet,” (when Pluto was demoted from planet status in 2006). Be sure to read to the end. The closing line is a good one.
- Leeza Cherniak was a defense lawyer who researched the best cedar plank to cook a salmon as she did case law.
- Chuck Dryden, a Tuskegee Airman. Again, the details: “As a toddler, Col. Dryden would fold paper, toss it into the air and call it an airplane. As a civilian, he learned to fly before he could drive, his wife said.”
- United Methodist Church minister Sally Daniel.
- Freddye Henderson, owner of the first black fully accredited travel agency.
Though this post isn’t an obit, I should include a telling detail about Kay, so here’s one: Until I asked her to send me some links to her obituaries, Kay had never Googled herself.
That detail about the 13 toothbrushes? That was from the obituary for Juanita Powell, Kay’s mother: “My sisters insisted I write Mama’s obit, though I told them I was too close, that I couldn’t. Well, of course, I wrote it. I had to combine my reporter news obit style with the traditional hometown newspaper style readers were accustomed to.” In a later email she added:
The preacher at the funeral, who has known our family a long time, said that he’d been a Methodist preacher for 43 years and has never understood what United Methodist Women do at their meetings. His wife, Mama and Ann Davis would go to UMW meetings regularly and stay a loooooooong time. After reading Kay’s obit, he said, he now knows what the good church women are doing at those UMW meetings. They’re playing poker!
More profiles of veteran journalists coming
I don’t know how old Kay is, but I do know I am closer in age to her than I am to any of the staff I have hired at TBD. By choice, I have redirected my career to pursue innovation, digital trailblazing, blogging and social media, pursuits in which I do not encounter many of my generation. By personality or necessity, I frequently criticize old-school newspaper ways in this blog. (I prefer to think of myself as challenging people to improve, but I’m sure it feels like criticism.) But writing about Kay reminds me that I have great respect and affection for veteran journalists and their contributions during careers in which we have seen amazing change. I will profile some of those journalists here from time to time. I welcome you to share your stories of veteran journalists in the comments here, or if you blog about them or see others honoring veteran journalists, please share the links here. We are losing a wealth of experience as my contemporaries retire, accept buyouts and leave the business in frustration. As I move forward, I am happy to salute journalists I admire who served our profession and their communities well.