The Obit Club — Expansion League

Rust Never Sleeps Fenced graves at St. Rafael Cemetery on Kaua'i.

June, 2011 :: Obit Club Membership Report

Ok – here is the current incarnation of the Obit Club – or at least my take on it — though I may not be exactly correct about some of these details. In the true southern storytelling tradition,  if I don’t know the facts, I can generally fill in the blanks with some semblence of fictionalized truth. (And if, as one of the subjects of said fiction,  you are not completely offended by it, just go with it. Don’t be too picky.)

1. Jenni Finlay– she got us all together originally. One of the top Americana music promoters in the biz. Leading her artist roster are James McMurtry and Ray Wylie Hubbard, Gurf Morlix and a slate of other talents.  Oh yeah, and she is my firstborn daughter – who has been dragged to funerals with me (as features editor of The Paper, I had to attend a few high profile  funerals); been late to school when I had to stop and shoot a bad wreck for The Paper (“Mo-om, Don’t stop… It doesn’t look that bad – they don’t even have the jaws of life…”), and grew up to appreciate a well-written obit, a good funeral, and proper mourning food.
2. Janice Williams  is a recovering disc jockey. She was the music director at KVET for a while and bad corporate evilness got rid of her and started having the music programmed somewhere in a factory so you don’t get to hear Austin musicians and  right there in the Live Music Capitol Of The World, now the music  has to be the same as it would be in Anytown, USA.  Janice is from Amarillo, Tx and her favorite holiday is the Day of The Dead. She decorates an altar and everything. She has a shrine to her dead cat that includes some of the actual ashes.  She loves cemeteries, and has a good blog.
3. Joan Kornblith lives and works in Washington, D.C . She  is the only one among us who currently has a stage name – she’s Katherine Cole, on the radio – and a real-life, award-winning broadcast journalist, and hosts a radio show on Voice of America – and (my favorite thing) – she wrote the definitive obit for Mary Travers. And her sister is the State Treasurer for Maryland.
4. Denise Boudreaux- she is from the same hometown as Marcia Ball and their parents were best friends,  and she worked for The Father of Austin Blues, Clifford Antone,  for a long time. Now she works for Lucky Tomblin running the music aspect of his operations.  Denise sent us some really cool photos of herself with Pinetop Perkins,  the 97 year old blues pianist who died this spring.
5. Susan Hanson  –  teaches really popular writing classes at Texas State University – with titles like “Nature and the Quest for Meaning” and has written some books that come with dust jackets. One of her books was excerpted (is that a word?) in Oprah’s “O” magazine. We worked together in Features at The Paper, and she has written at least as many obits as I. I was most proud when she got to interview Sargent Shriver and Bill Moyers for quotes for Ambassador Bill Crook’s obit. I knew her when.
6. Bill Wence —   lives in Nashville. He is a radio promoter like Jenni. He was at her house earlier this year during SXSW and several of our club members were there. He told us that country legend Ferlin Huskey had died. Collectively, we said, “What?” And rushed for our smart phones to confirm. Yes. He had.  We told him about the club and, of course,  he wanted in. So we let him break the gender barrier – as a probationary member.  So he hurried back to Nashville, went to the Ferlin Husky funeral. Scanned the funeral program and sent it to us with a delightful low budget review of the memorial.  We voted him into full membership. BTW, before he became a radio promoter – he has been a piano player – and he still plays on tour occasionally. Just got back from a  tour with country legend Wanda Jackson across the Western US.  He worked in the lettuce fields in California in the 50s, and played /plays with Tom T Hall, Bobby Bare – and about a million other people .  And he has some close connection to the song “Brandy, you’re a fine girl…” I think he played on that record. I know he recorded it on his last cd.
7. Jill Conner Browne – Her Royal Highness, herownself of Sweet Potato Queen fame.  Hailing from somewhere in Mississippi, she co-wrote what may be the best obit ever for her own blessed mother and we voted her in unanimously upon reading it.
8.  And me — Read the blog —  or my website  for more than you would ever want to know.

The rules are simple – in the time honored tradition of my own great-Aunt Robbie, we all want to be the “first to know-first to tell” when we see an obit that is exceptionally good – or famous – or has a good story with it. (I recently went off on a tangent after Jane Russell died  – about the small town department store owner  who measured me for bras when I was in junior high –  and people thought it was fine – because he had been professionally trained in bra fitting – and as such, it was kind of like he was a doctor of brassieria.)

After the initial announcement – which sometimes is submitted multiple times, members of this intellectual and well-read club often make a comment about  said obit or news report, and reply all  if they have a personal connection,  or a jarred memory of something related, or had a preteen crush on the deceased.

Jenni is our founder and, if we elected officers, she would probably get to be president. She is also our social chair and has hosted two obit club events in her home. She brought us together and got us as organized as we will ever be. Bill was a delightful overachiever when he was new but has been on tour so he’s slacked off a tad.  But he’s holding his own in this group of women. I think  Janice would hold the record for the most “firsts,” if we were actually keeping score – and Joan still wins something for writing obits heard round the world.  Denise is good at adding her two cents worth on a lot of the roots music deaths. Susan catches some of the obscure death notices, and Jill tosses out a doozy once in a while.

All in all, we are a committed, if unlikely bunch. If any of us were adept at needlepoint, we would make throw pillows with our motto stitched on it. “First to know…”

That’s pretty much it. And  for now, I have to go post Elizabeth Stillman‘s obit from the Statesman. That was a good one.  I was lucky to meet her a few times.

My favorite line – “She did what she came here to do.”


Listening to: Johnny Cash & June Carter – “Farside Banks of Jordan”

The Obituary Club

Clockwise, Janice Williams, Joan Kornblith, Diana Hendricks, Denise Boudreaux, Jenni Finlay (Lana didn't make the shoot!)

I am not quite sure how it came about, but I am a charter member of a small but unique organization, The Obituary Club. We are an unlikely group of women. Men are not discouraged from joining our group, but none have yet to actually step forward. So for now,  Jenni and Janice and Joan and Denise and Lana and I make up this odd group. Our ages range from early 30s to mid 50s.

We meet regularly via email. Our mission is to make note of the passing of important, infamous, or otherwise notable people. Bonus points are given to the member who breaks the story, but I don’t think anyone actually keeps score.  Sounds a little weird – maybe looks a bit morbid at first glance, but bear with me here.

Most of us have done time as “professional” obituary writers at some point in our careers. One of Jenni’s first assignments on the college newspaper, of which she later became editor, was writing the obit for the beloved dean. (Challenging since she didn’t know him, but so moving that they blew it up displayed it). Radio professional Janice has had to announce deaths on the air – breaking the news of celebrities’ demise.  And Joan has the most world-wide acclaim: having written some of the most memorable obit essays about celebrities for radio’s Voice of America.  My favorite: her obit for Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary fame.

I didn’t just fall into this club by accident. I come from a long line of obituary aficionados. My grandpa used to hand deliver funeral notices all over Lockhart. Is anyone old enough to remember those?  Small town funeral homes used to print funeral notices on little squares of paper with black borders,  and take them around and put them on peoples’ doors.  In towns that only had  weekly newspaper, that was the only way to be assured that you got the word out in time for folks to attend the service.

While she was not a great fan of death in general, my (great-)Aunt Robbie was a true fan of funerals and well-written obituaries. She would say, “Did you see Miss Jackson’s obit in The Paper, this afternoon? It was a good one.” Or, “Pennington’s sure did a nice job on Marjorie. She didn’t look plastic. I’d hate to look plastic like some do.”

And, of course, “You know, he was a good Methodist. So we all went back there after the service. Lois made those chicken salad sandwiches I like so much. Only white meat and real mayonaise.”  And, “Someone took them a bucket of store-bought fried chicken.  Umm. Umm. Didn’t even put it on a platter. I swan…”

And, as has become a family saying, my favorite expression that Aunt Robbie used to use, when I drop by her house after work -and before the paper hit the street, “Did anybody good die?” (Good in this interpretation was not actually referring to the heart and soul, of course, but newsworthy.)  My mother still asks that sometimes, when calling from Houston – wondering about the goings-on in San Marcos.

When I was the features editor of The Paper, obituaries were on my beat. Sometimes, I would be asked to write the obit, but most came pre-written by the families- through the funeral home.  I know a good obituary when I see it.

The information superhighway is a long way from walking door to door in Lockhart delivering the news. Random death announcements pop up during the day. We stumble across something in the online edition of New York Times or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A couple of our members even subscribe to an online Celebrity Death Watch that notifies them directly when somebody good dies. My husband helps me. If he sees a death announcement in his web-surfing, he will instant message me and say, “Did anyone post Dandy Don Meredith yet?” And sometimes, just as news pops up on the evening news, my iPhone bings with a message from one of the club members. Drat! I missed being the “first to know-first to tell.”

Every obituary we post is not necessarily one of celebrity status. When Mr. Hada died in San Marcos, I had to tell the group about him, because he was the only chicken sexer I had ever known.  Janice posted one recently about oldest guy in that “We’ve been to every Super Bowl” club, who was too weak to go this year. She thinks he may have died from heartbreak  for having to miss the game.

Nearly forgotten celebs whose names conjure up memories are always newsworthy. Mitch Miller and Jack Lalane, Barbara Billingsley, Sargent Shriver…

Sometimes these posts take us off on tangents. When Jane Russell died, most of our group were of a generation who didn’t think of her as a voluptuous movie star as much as the “Cross-Your-Heart bra” spokesperson who touted the Playtex 18-Hour Bra “for us full-figured gals.”

We all swapped emails about bras for about a week. Department store fittings, appropriate foundations, when they should be discarded, car wreck concerns,  etc.  (Maybe this is a reason we don’t have a rush of men in our numbers.)  But Jane was not our first bra-related obit.

The New York Times has some of the best obits in journalism today.  Their ledes draw you into the life story of the departed, whether you’ve heard of them or not.  Take Selma Koch, for instance:

Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B.

Now, that is a good one.

Oh yeah, and  they really do go in threes. Aunt Robbie had heard the Indian legend  that people die in threes because it takes three to paddle the boat across the waters to the Happy Hunting Ground.  And that does make sense. So we try to count. Or we say, “There you go – he would be the third.”

Elizabeth Edwards and Dandy Don were in the boat with Barney Miller actor Steve Landesberg. I’ll bet that was an entertaining canoe trip. I hope Elizabeth got to laugh a lot.

Listening to Shelley King’s  “Welcome Home.”