An excerpt from chapter 11 of Gimme Rewrite, Sweetheart: Tales From the Last Glory Days of Cleveland Newspapers by John H. Tidyman.
Death is an integral part of life, and few stories are as reportable or readable.
Shondor Birns went up in a mighty roar, followed by flames and smoke. His appendages were scattered hither and yon. Superintendent of Cleveland Schools Frederick Holliday held the business end of a .357 Magnum over his heart and pulled the trigger. Retired Plain Dealer editor Phil Porter and his wife were murdered in their home.
Other stories about the recently deceased might be fascinating, for other reasons. At death, many lives, newspapers believe, become worthy of stories. For many readers, it's the best part of the paper.
Writing obituaries isn't easy, because the subject isn't talking. Others are, of course, and the first rule of obit writing might be accuracy. The New York Times is hardly immune from mistakes. In a death story about Walter Cronkite, the Times made seven (count 'em!) factual errors. There is no better way to annoy the survivors, and the disaster (and it was a disaster) will be part of every journalism course.
One of the unsung benefits of writing obits is the opportunity to meet such interesting people, even though the subject is no longer with us.
Sometimes I was the guy who had to wake up the widows. If there was a traffic accident or something overnight, you had to go down there and pound on the door and wake up the wife, who's been probably asleep for 20 minutes. Then you had to go in the house and get all the pictures of the dead guy. And I got pretty good at that. We'd take them all because the Plain Dealer was coming. Our cover story was, "I don't know if I could tell how well any of these will come out. But our professional photo studio will know. With all due respect. I don't mean to cause you any further pain. This is the last picture of your husband that will ever run anywhere." And "I assure you you'll get them back." They did.
A cabbie went missing. His wife had called in and said that he never came home from work. The cops were out looking for him and investigating. I called the wife and she told me how he had called her, as usual, at midnight, 1 o'clock. She said that he always said, "I love you and I'll see you in the morning" before he hung up. And she just couldn't imagine where he was. He had been killed and stuffed in the trunk of his cab. So I was told to call her back and get information and the picture and everything. So I called back, and this was really hard to do because I realized that she did not yet know her husband was dead. So I had to make up a story about needing a picture in case somebody saw him. It was a hard, hard thing to do.
General assignment reporter,
At the Press, everybody did obits. There was a principal obit writer, but if she was busy, anybody else could get into obits if they were open. No big shot was too big a big shot to do somebody's obit. Everybody's got a story, and this may be their one shot in life to get into the paper, so let's tell the world who they were and what they did. So we always tried to write the obits with some little hint of what this person's life was like.
One day I had the weirdest obit ever, I think, and they actually put a byline on it, which was unusual. This guy, I think, was a locomotive engineer by trade, but his hobby was to rent himself out as a heckler. He'd be like a vicious Don Rickles kind of heckler. He was a guy that would be hired to get up at a wedding and when they say, "Does anybody object to this," he'd get up and say, "She's carrying my baby," or something like that. He'd go into bars and accuse people of things. And they wanted that in his obit. That was what he did. I don't know what happened to that obit. I've got it someplace, I hope.
When I was working at the [Elyria] Chronicle-Telegram, I realized we needed to do more reporting on obits when Mrs. Moen died. She died in Florida. Florida funeral homes are notorious for giving you hardly any information. They faxed us something that said, "Mrs. Moen, who used to live in Elyria, is dead. And she belonged to the church in Elyria." And that was pretty much it. And that was pretty much how I wrote it up.
The obit went through the city-desk people — no comment. It went through the copy-desk people — nothing. Then it got to Joe Gluvna, who was the city editor. He chewed me out. He said, "Don't you know Mrs. Moen?"
"No." I really had no clue.
"Did you hear of the Moen faucet?" he asked.
"Sort of." But I didn't know what it was.
"Don't you know that the major employer in Elyria is Stanadyne, which makes Moen faucets?" he barked. "From now on, anytime you do an obit, you go back in the library and you look for stuff. Find out everything."
That wasn't being done regularly by anybody working on obits. Most of the people who knew to do that ended up getting better jobs.
There was a guy who used to hang around The Plain Dealer and at the Headliner and the other bars around the PD. Everybody called him GI Joe because he always had a field jacket on and maybe an army cap of some kind. Nobody really knew his real name.
One day, one of the guys came up to me in the office and said, "Did you see the little story in Sunday's Plain Dealer? It's two paragraphs about the guy that was killed by a hit-skip driver right down the street from the Plain Dealer."
"Yeah, I saw that," I said.
"That was GI Joe," he said.
"Oh, shit. He deserves more than three paragraphs."
I started to follow it up, and followed it up and followed it up, and peeled away a layer of his life at a time. When I was all done, I had a 50-inch obituary.
He always said that he served in the 82nd Airborne Division, and he was a fighter and he boxed and he was in a concentration camp. Well, it was all bullshit, but it was harmless bullshit.
It turned out, he wasn't a boxer. He lied about it. He wasn't in the Airborne, but he was in the Army. He was in Germany. He was a truck driver, I believe, for a medical unit. This was just after World War II. The funeral director had the death certificate, which had 82nd Airborne, so he didn't know the difference. He got a hold of the 82nd Airborne Division Association. I'll be damned, if six of those guys didn't come out to the funeral and stand there. They didn't have a bugle, they didn't have taps, but they stood there at attention and gave him a salute, and damned if one of those Airborne guys didn't slap a decal on the urn.
When the story ran, it started on Page 1 and jumped twice. And never have I had more reaction that I did with that guy. This was before voicemail or before e-mail, and there were just stacks of those little pink notepads, so-and-so called, so-and-so called — I got calls from people who said, "Jesus Christ, I can't believe it. I knew that guy. I saw that guy all the time. I didn't know he had this background."
I never had more reaction to a story than with this guy, and nobody knew who he was.
One day, I got this information on George Ostro. He was in his late 40s, and he was more or less an indigent person who had died in Rochester, which was a little tiny, itty-bitty, 200-population village maybe, outside of Wellington. The funeral director who'd taken care of George didn't know a whole lot about him. He had a couple of sisters that the funeral director talked to. They weren't even sure where he was born. This is the kind of family we're talking about. And I said something to the funeral director, "Oh, I'll look in the files and see if we've ever written about George." He said, "Oh, you won't find anything on ol' George." So I go to the files, and lo and behold, there's George. George ran for president of the United States three times. He took out the petitions. He never got enough people to sign up to get him on the ballot, but he was interviewed because it was such a cool thing. And he was really crazy. That's really peculiar stuff. It was my first notion that you could write a really cool story about somebody who wasn't necessarily the former mayor or whatever. It was George Ostro, freethinker. It was cool.
During the early days of Vietnam, one of our duties was to call the families of the servicemen killed in Vietnam and get their story and get their history and get a picture. And I followed decorum. I followed tradition and asked the usual questions, no leading questions, and then finally, the job got to be so overwhelming, and the evidence that it wasn't a popular war — I finally departed from objectivity and started asking questions like "Was it really necessary for him to go to Vietnam?" "Was it really necessary for him to serve?" Maybe not quite that blunt, but pretty close to it. And never did I get an answer that it was unnecessary or that he died in vain. And I felt so many did. The families never said that they died in vain. It was a little surprising. I thought I'd find somebody.
I was put on obits at one point. That was a go-nowhere job. But I'll never forget Bill Tanner's line when he also wanted me to do engagements. I was hysterical and just, really, on the verge of tears. He said, "Well, why are you upset? This way, you get to marry 'em and bury 'em."
I got a call a long time ago at The Plain Dealer from a man in Florida who told me his ex-wife died. I'm asking him the regular questions, because at that point, we were doing obits on just about everybody. We talked for a little bit, and then I asked him one of my favorite questions: "What set her apart from the rest of the crowd?" I like to ask people that. Some people are just so shocked, you can tell they have no idea what they're talking about. Others will tell you things that are wonderful. More often than not, you get, "Oh, he was a giving, caring person," that stuff. But this guy said, "She was 115 pounds when we got married, and she was 115 pounds when she died." I thought, no wonder you're not married anymore.
When things got slow on the police beat, that's when I got in trouble with my practical jokes and my practical stories. My made-up stories were not that frequent, but they were very, very successful. Bob Holmes was from England. And he was a very good reporter and a very good writer. And he came over here and he did very well at the police beat. He was going to law school. So one night, he was on obits for the first time. Now when somebody's on obits for the first time, we try to get a story to fake them out.
I was working a rare Saturday night. So I called the first time toward the first-edition deadline, and I said, "This is the Donald B. Johnson Funeral Home in Northfield."
"Can't talk to you now," Bob said. "Can't talk to you now. Too busy. Too busy." And he hung up on me.
So at 10:30, I called back. Well, that was the deadline on Saturday night. I usually worked Monday through Friday and I was right on deadline, and I called Bob Holmes back, and this had to be the mid-'70s, '74 or so, and I said, "This is the Donald B. Johnson Funeral Home. I tried to talk to you earlier on, but you were too busy to talk to me. We have the body of Cyrus Eaton in here."
He said, "Oh!" And he started screaming. He said, "Vern." Vern Havener was on the city desk. He yelled, "Vern, oh, Vern."
And I started screaming, "Wait, wait!" And we got disconnected somehow. We didn't have any cell phones or hotlines in those days. So I tried to call back desperately, but they were tearing out the front page, they were making it over, they were calling Potsdam and Nova Scotia — Cyrus Eaton's peace tank, where he tried to make peace with Russia before we did, long before we did. He was a peacemaker and he was also a profiteer. Of course, he wanted profits from Russia.
But in any event, they were calling the Donald B. Johnson Funeral Home. They were calling Cyrus Eaton's farm in Northfield, where I used to work in 1946 in his flower garden for 35 cents an hour. But anyway, I couldn't get a line back in. Finally, I had to call a reporter in the city room and say, "Stop that Cyrus Eaton obit."
"Yeah? How can I do that?" he said.
"You tell them Don Bean said to stop that, that I just made it up," I said.
He was happy as hell that I was in trouble. We didn't get along too well. And I waited for the phone to ring. It was Vern Havener. He had the coldest, iciest voice I ever heard in my life. He said, "What do you know about a Cyrus Eaton obit?"
"I know everything about it," I said. "I was trying to pull Bob Holmes' leg."
"You'll be pulling your leg on the street," he said, and he hung up on me. I thought I was fired. I was down at Central Police Station at 21st and Payne Avenue. I was married at the time and had three children. I had to walk up to the city room to show at least that I was sober. I had to stand in front of Vern Havener — he was the assistant city editor that night, for that day — with my hat in my hand apologizing, and I didn't even wear a hat. Vern was a pipe smoker, and there were thick clouds of smoke coming up from this pipe, he was so angry. And I had to separate the smoke to look him in the eye and say, "Vern, Vern, this is the history of practical jokes in the newspaper business. I'm just trying to follow tradition and have a little fun."
And the next voice I heard was from — and he's dead now — was from the staff drunk. He was the pet editor. He was saying, in a squeaky voice, "If the s.o.b. ever did that to me, I'd fire his ass."
To his everlasting credit, Vern didn't fire me. He didn't even tell the city editor about it. It circulated all through the city room, of course, but he never directly told the city editor. Years later, about six years later, 1980, I'm assistant city editor, day assignment editor — I was quite a drinker in those days — I came in to work with one of the granddaddy hangovers. The phone rang, and it was about 10 a.m., and the voice on the other end said, "Don, what time this morning did Cyrus Eaton die?" I said, "Oh God, Vern. Don't do this to me?" He said, "Why not? You did it to me." And he hung up.
Reporter, Plain Dealer
I did a story about a guy named John Doe. My wife had worked for the state of Ohio at the time they were moving nursing-home patients around. She told me one of the patients was named John Doe. "This is what the state of Ohio calls him because they lost all of his records," she said.
I had to do a story on him. Nobody knew who he was. He didn't have much, just a few possessions, so I asked him if he needed anything. He said, "Yeah, I like music. It would be nice if I had a little radio. I'd like to listen to music during the day when there's nothing going on."
I quoted that in the article, which appeared on Page 1. The next morning, Bill Miller, who used to be a reporter for the Plain Dealer, said, "You know, that guy you wrote about? Before the day's over, he's going to open up a Radio Shack."
Well, a construction worker dropped off the first radio about 6:30 in the morning, and they just kept coming all day. And not only did he get a radio, everybody in that nursing home got a radio.
I don't know how long it was after that, maybe a year later, I got a call from the lady at the nursing home, and she told me John died.
"There's nobody to be a pallbearer," she said. "Would you be a pallbearer for him?"
And carrying that guy into a funeral home — he had nothing — I broke up. The funeral, I think, was at a potter's field someplace in Hamden Township or Thompson Township, and that's where he was buried. And on the stone was the name John Doe. That guy had nobody. He had nothing. He didn't even have his own name, but we gave him 15 minutes of fame on the front page of The Plain Dealer. We got him a radio. That was a tough one, carrying that poor old guy into the funeral home.
Adapted from Gimme Rewrite, Sweetheart: Tales From the Last Glory Days of Cleveland Newspapers © 2009 by John H. Tidyman. This text may not be reproduced in any form or manner without written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers. The book is available at most Northeast Ohio bookstores and online from Amazon.com.