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The obit desk meets the undead

Careful readers of the Boston Globe might have appreciated the re-emergence of David Shribman, the paper’s Pulitzer Prize–winning former Washington bureau chief, who wrote the graceful obituary of Ronald Reagan that appeared in Sunday’s editions. But unless those readers were familiar with newsroom folkways, it might not have occurred to them that Shribman had actually written the obit years earlier, when he was still working for the Globe.

Shribman — who left in 2002 to become executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — says he wrote the Reagan piece 10 or 11 years ago, and had been carrying a printout with him ever since. "I wrote it so long ago that the bit about the Alzheimer’s had to be inserted into it," he says. He adds that when he left the Globe, he specifically asked editor Martin Baron if his new paper could use it when the time came. And indeed, Shribman’s Reagan piece ran not just in the Globe, but also in the Post-Gazette and a sister paper, the Toledo Blade.

"He was very gracious about that," Shribman says of Baron. "The Globe sells no papers in Pittsburgh. And we sell no papers in Boston. And neither of us sells any papers in Toledo." Nor is Shribman finished with the obit beat for the Globe: the paper still has his piece on former president George H.W. Bush in its files.

Writing advance obituaries of the great and the famous is a time-honored tradition in the news business — so much so that one of the better-known practitioners, the New York Times’ Alden Whitman, was the subject of a celebrated profile by Gay Talese that appeared in Esquire in 1966. The title: "Mr. Bad News," a playful reference to Whitman’s practice of interviewing his subjects while they were still among the undead.

Michael Larkin, the Globe’s deputy managing editor for news operations, says that his paper has about 200 obituaries of living people in its files, the emphasis being on prominent people who are likely to warrant front-page treatment. "There’s some evidence that anyone can escape taxes if they work at it, but death is going to come to everyone," he says. He adds that perhaps the most important advance obituary the Globe has ready is of Pope John Paul II, written by former religion reporter Diego Ribadeneira, now a copy editor at the New York Times.

Globe staff reporter Mark Feeney, who frequently writes send-offs of prominent people, observes that the business of preparing advance obituaries is inherently unpredictable: a piece he wrote about the diplomat George Kennan some years ago has yet to run (Kennan turned 100 earlier this year), whereas his obit of former New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was published within months of its production.

Retired Globe columnist Martin Nolan, now based in San Francisco, recalls once taking former Boston mayor John Collins to a restaurant and engaging him in conversation. When the suspicious Collins asked whether Nolan was gathering material for his obituary, Nolan replied in the affirmative — which, in turn, led Collins to wonder aloud whether he could ever get favorable treatment from the Globe, of which he had been a bitter critic. Nolan recalls telling him, " ‘You could die on a slow news day.’ And the son of a bitch died on Thanksgiving. He died on the slowest news day of the year." Recalling the reams of column inches devoted to Collins’s demise, Nolan says, "Die on a slow news day and you’ll be well taken care of."

Sometimes the subject of an advance obit remains so active that the piece has to be substantially rewritten at the time of death. Such will be the case with the Globe and former president Jimmy Carter, who turns 80 later this year. Retired political reporter Curtis Wilkie wrote Carter’s obituary about a decade ago — before Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as an international mediator, much of which he undertook in his 70s. "It would need to be updated. I certainly hope it would," says Wilkie, who now splits his time between New Orleans and Oxford, Mississippi, where he teaches at the University of Mississippi, his alma mater. Wilkie is emphatic that he did not interview Carter for the piece, explaining, "It seems a little macabre to me."

Perhaps the ultimate in macabre obituaries, though, appeared in the New York Times on July 29 of last year. The obit, of comedian Bob Hope, had been written by Vincent Canby, who himself had died in 2000. "Dead men tell no tales — except at the New York Times," wrote Keith Kelly in the New York Post. "If there are any mistakes, obviously don’t tell the writer."

Issue Date: June 11 - 17, 2004
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