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Tribute Writers


It seems like a lot of stories I write these days are about people who died. Dr. John, Leah Chase, musician Spencer Bohren and my former Times-Picayune colleagues Ronnie Virgets and Frank Donze, to name just a few from this past month.

For New Orleans Magazine, there’s been Jimmy Glickman, the former proprietor of the New Orleans Music Exchange and, of course, my beloved sister Ellen.

And others. Many others.

Hell, my debut column for Gambit back in 2010 was about John Ward, the proprietor of National Art & Hobby Uptown, who had just died suddenly and mysteriously. I hadn’t planned on specializing in dead people for that job but it was only weeks later that I eulogized the great Mississippi writer Barry Hannah.

And others. Many others.

Perhaps it’s the irreconcilability of getting old. The people you love and admire – those who shaped and guided you – they start up and dying. And if you do what I do for a living, you write about them.

In my trade, they’re called obituaries. For a softer touch, we call them tributes. Really short ones are called epitaphs – but they’re generally carved in stone, not printed on paper.

The folks who do this work for a living are historically among the most misunderstood and maligned members of a newsroom. Think about it: What kid tells their parents, elders and teachers that they want to be an obituarist when they grow up?

Then again, in a business beset by chronic setbacks, cutbacks, layoffs and downsizing, writing obits just might offer the best job security in newspapering. After all, there’s a story waiting for you every day.

As my dad got older, he began his morning routine by making coffee and opening up the paper to the obit page. He jokingly called it “the Irish sports section.” He not-so-jokingly said it was the only place in the paper where he saw his friends’ names anymore.

And then, one day, his name was there.

In the newsrooms of old, the flank of desks where the obit writers toiled through the day and night was called Death Row. With little incentive or need to attend daily news briefings or meetings – and generally located in far-flung outposts of the newsroom – obit writers were often stereotyped as introverts and eccentrics, backsliders, day drinkers, nighthawks and loners.

And some were, to be sure. After all, that’s how stereotypes begin.

But I have come to appreciate – over my many decades in the business – the grace, rigor, appeal and importance of making a living writing about those who die.

The woman who gave me my first newspaper job was an inestimable force of human nature named Nancy Brucker. She was not herself a journalist, but an office and personnel manager at the Washington Post.

She hired me as a copy boy, charged with sorting mail, delivering messages, restocking supplies and changing the rolls of paper in the wire machines. (Back when they had wire machines.) And though she never wrote a word for the paper, she taught me one of my most valuable and lasting lessons of the news business.

Death Row at the Post was located right outside her office door. She gazed daily upon these men and women in their isolated cubicles pondering the conditions of death and dying – a rumpled, disgruntled, cigarette-stained collaborative of misfits and poets. She watched them, talked to them, learned from them.

And it was Nancy who taught me that these men and women were truly the sentinels and backbone of the newspaper business – the solid, the worthy and unsung. Hell, more often than not, they didn’t even get bylines.

But she explained to me that – more than the authors of any salacious scoop, front page expose, exclusive interview or self-righteous editorial – the obit writers told the stories of the beating heart of the city.

They never won prizes and nobody knew their names. But it was through their tireless research, interminable phone calls, dogged attention to detail and accuracy – and their lofty commitment to their lowly craft – that they told the stories not of how we die, but of how we live.


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