WILLIAMSTOWN — One of the best teachers I ever had never stood before a chalkboard, turned in a list of grades, filled out a hall pass or confiscated a slingshot, Slinky or cellphone.
Marie Stanley began her workdays alone in the dimly lit gloom of a silent newsroom in Troy, N.Y. At 5:45 a.m., waiting for her phone to ring, she chain-smoked Salems and sipped strong coffee while perusing the competition, a morning paper published in Albany.
Around six, the calls started coming in, at first sporadically. An hour later, the empty coffee cup was in the trash basket and the half-smoked Salem had been crushed into the metal film canister/ashtray. Marie’s telephone receiver, perched in a frame on her right shoulder, was pressed to her ear. Her fingers flew over the keyboard of the then-new IBM Selectric typewriter that she had initially cursed for its highly-sensitive key touch but lately had come to accept — even grudgingly appreciate — as a valuable tool of her trade.
It was 1977 and Marie was obituary editor of the newspaper then called The Times-Record. The calls were coming in from funeral homes throughout the paper’s three-county circulation area.
Marie knew them all. She dispensed cheery good mornings to those funeral directors who routinely did their best to assemble random facts about clients into coherent narratives. An eye-roll and a whispered epithet over a hand muffled telephone mouthpiece were unmistakable clues that a deadline-pushing caller was blathering a disorderly collection of facts, leaving Marie to put the patchwork in order. She would try to help funeral business newbies, but she had a one-time-only policy on pitching them a life ring. “Who, when, where and how. Let’s always start with that order, OK honey?” she’d say.
Once or twice a week, as part of the newpaper’s cross-training program, an informal and largely voluntary campaign to acquaint staff members with various jobs in the newsroom, I worked early shifts as Marie’s assistant.
With the rising sun at my back, I would drive to Troy from Hoosick Falls, where I headed the paper’s one-person bureau. I may have been my own boss, but my puny authority vaporized in Troy. I soon learned to leave extra time to get to work: Marie insisted on punctuality and no excuse would suffice.
After a few weeks, I began to enjoy obit writing thoroughly. “Rewrite,” the art of producing an informative, accurate and publishable narrative from a hodge-podge of hastily gathered information against a deadline, is exhilarating work. Time passes quickly and when the dust settles, so does a comfortable mantle of satisfaction. Sometimes, the mantle is torn by error. Corrections and/or republished obits are amends that keep writers mindful of the damage their mistakes can cause; obit writing makes excellent grounding wire for supercharged newsies.
I like to think that I’ve become a connoisseur of obits over the years, and every now and then I come across a gem. In the Sept. 12 Sunday New York Times appeared the obituary of Delores Custer, introduced in the headline as the “stylist who got cornflakes ready for their closeups.”
Custer, who died at age 79 at her home in Portland, Ore., was a food stylist. She was, in the words of writer Penelope Green, “the Maxwell Perkins of food photography — able to shape the unwieldy, the drab and the formless into a crisp and dazzling bestseller, as that renowned editor did with the prose of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. She was patient, keen-eyed and dexterous. She would sift through boxes of cornflakes to find the ones with the most character, and through bags of Goldfish crackers to pluck those with the most ‘smile definition.’”
Readers who might be inclined to investigate the stately and well-spoken world of obits couldn’t do better than to lay their hands on “The Last Word, The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells: A Celebration of Unusual Lives.”
Edited by Marvin Siegel with a foreword by Russell Baker, the book contains a wide assortment of life stories of the famous and not-so-famous. Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan is memorialized, as is Johnny Sylvester, Babe Ruth’s “sick little pal.”
As Marie Stanley liked to joke: Aren’t you just dying to read that one?