WILLIAMSTOWN – One of the best teachers I’ve ever had in front of a blackboard, handed over a list of notes, filled out a pass, or confiscated a slingshot, Slinky, or cell phone.
Marie Stanley began her work days alone in the dim light of a quiet newsroom in Troy, NY At 5:45 a.m., waiting for her phone to ring, she smoked on the Salems Channel and sipped strong coffee while browsing the contest, a morning newspaper published in Albania.
At around six o’clock the calls started to arrive, sporadically at first. An hour later the empty coffee mug was in the trash and the half-smoked Salem had been crushed in the canister / ashtray. Marie’s telephone receiver, perched in a frame on her right shoulder, was glued to her ear. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard of the new IBM Selectric typewriter that she had initially cursed for its highly sensitive touch, but had recently accepted – albeit reluctantly – as a valuable tool of her trade.
It was 1977 and Marie was the obituary editor for the newspaper then called The Times-Record. The calls came from funeral homes in the newspaper’s circulation area in all three counties.
Marie knew them all. She offered happy good mornings to funeral directors who regularly did their best to put random facts about clients together into cohesive narratives. A rolling of the eyes and a whispered epithet on a hand muffled phone tip were undeniable clues that a pushing caller was stammering out a messy collection of facts, leaving Marie to tidy up the patchwork. She was trying to help those new to the funeral business, but her unique policy was to give them a lifeline. âWho, when, where and how. Let’s always start with this order, okay honey? she would say.
Once or twice a week, as part of the newspaper’s cross-training program, an informal and largely volunteer campaign to familiarize staff members with various jobs in the newsroom, I worked the early hours as a Mary’s assistant.
With the sun rising at my back, I made my way to Troy from Hoosick Falls, where I ran the newspaper office. I may have been my own boss, but my meager authority has evaporated in Troy. I quickly learned to allow myself extra time to get to work: Marie insisted on punctuality and no apology would suffice.
After a few weeks, I started to enjoy writing obits thoroughly. âRewriting,â the art of producing an informative, accurate and publishable story from a mishmash of hastily gathered information within a set time frame, is exhilarating work. Time flies and when the dust settles, so does a cozy coat of satisfaction. Sometimes the coat is torn by the mistake. Republished corrections and / or obituaries are fines that keep writers aware of the damage their mistakes can cause; The obit writing makes a great grounding thread for overpowered journalists.
I like to think that I have become a connoisseur of obits over the years, and every once in a while I stumble upon a gem. In the New York Times of Sunday, September 12, appeared the obituary of Delores Custer, described in the headline as “the designer who made cornflakes for their close-ups.”
Custer, who died at the age of 79 at her Portland, Oregon home, was a food stylist. She was, in the words of writer Penelope Green, “the Maxwell Perkins of food photography – capable of shaping the heavy, dull and shapeless into a crisp and dazzling bestseller, as this renowned editor has put it. done with prose from Fitzgerald and Hemingway. She was patient, perceptive and dexterous. She sifted through boxes of cornflakes to find the ones with the most character and bags of Goldfish crackers to pick those with the most “definition” smile â.
Readers who might be inclined to investigate the majestic and well-spoken world of obituaries could not do better than get 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 preface by Russell Baker, the book contains a wide assortment of life stories of famous and less famous people. Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan is commemorated, as is Johnny Sylvester, Babe Ruth’s “sick boyfriend”.
As Marie Stanley liked to joke: wouldn’t you be dying to read this one?
DR “Dusty” Bahlman can be contacted by mail c / o The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201, by email at [email protected] or by phone at 413-441-4278.