Dispatches from the Fourth Quarter, Chapter 9
It will happen to you, as the years tick down in our Fourth Quarters: A contemporary, friend or family member will die, and you may be pressed into writing an obituary.
Within the space of just a week in May, I lost two close friends: Marty Blake died on the 15th and Sally Scott on the 21st. Marty was 77, Sally 90.
So, almost by default, I became an obituary writer.
I am a journalist, I knew both Marty and Sally well, and I was honored to write about their lives. In the process, I learned much more about my departed friends than I had accumulated in our many decades together.
To say the two were different is an understatement:
Marty Blake was an outspoken firebrand, quick to take exception to the way things were. He was a tireless leader of the 1970s campaign to save the Stanislaus River. He always seemed to be around when a Union Democrat Photopinions reporter set up shop on a Sonora street corner. His Responses were contrarian and colorful.
Marty ran unsuccessfully for a Tuolumne County supervisorial seat, but for years remained a persistent, quotable thorn in the board’s side.
We reporters loved Marty: He was a good copy.
Sally Scott was the Union Democrat’s managing editor for 28 years. She never, ever wanted to be in the paper herself.
The only story I found in Scott’s very thin UD file was a 1988 piece I had written on her retirement. As I questioned her for that story, I still remember, Sally told me to keep it short and drop it down.
As boss and mentor to more than 40 young reporters over her nearly three decades on the job, Scott told us to cover the news, keep it objective and never become part of it. She almost certainly had views on the issues of the day, but kept them to herself.
We reporters loved Sally: She taught us how to do our jobs.
Over the years, I kept seeing both of my friends – although COVID had kept us at a distance for many months.
But, as I found writing Blake’s and Scott’s obituaries, there were large parts of both their lives I knew nothing about. I relied on Marty’s sister and on Sally’s nieces to fill me in on their early years.
Cathie Peacock, Interfaith Community Services executive director, told me of Sally’s tireless work as a volunteer and founding board member for the charity. Jennifer Warren, principal at Gold Rush Charter School, told me of Marty’s dedication to his students and of the close connections he had forged with them.
I sent draft after obituary draft to friends and families of Blake and Scott – mortified at the prospect of getting anything wrong. Obits are the last thing written about most people – and they themselves are not around to prove them.
Misquote a city councilman? Run a correction the next day, and life goes on.
Make a mistake in an obit? Obituary corrections are not cool. Not when parts of that final dispatch about a friend or relative are, pardon the expression, dead wrong.
The original obit and its misinformation will likely survive, but not the correction – which may have run on an inside page a few days later.
That’s why I kept sending those drafts of Marty’s and Sally’s obituaries to their patient, obliging families and friends. And it paid off: Several of my drafts had Scott’s date of death wrong – I had incorrectly deprived her of a week of life.
Her niece Karen is credited with the last-minute, last-draft save.
Writing of Marty’s and Sally’s lives was fulfilling, but stressful. I was relieved to finish their obituaries. Still, I remain haunted by the remote possibility that I didn’t get something right.
The lesson here? Writing obits is not easy.
Your key source is dead. Finding informed friends or family members may be difficult. And even the closest among survivors may get something wrong.
So what to do?
(I’ll try to answer that question in a coming Dispatch from the Fourth Quarter.)
Contact Chris Bateman at firstname.lastname@example.org.