Illuminating local lives in each day's obits


Most of the recent news about newspapers has had little to do with journalism.

Business sections have described investor dissatisfaction with media company profits and reported on layoffs or buyouts in newsrooms across the country. Industry Web sites are dominated by stories about declining circulation and a fragmented media marketplace.

In this environment it is easy to overlook examples of continuing excellent journalism, not the big, prize-winning series but the daily stories that are often taken for granted.

An article published in The Sun's Nov. 17 edition, "Thomas Cunningham, 71, longtime egg delivery man," was such an example. Written by Sun reporter Jacques Kelly, the article exemplifies great local reporting - in this case an obituary that captured the extraordinary life of a seemingly ordinary man.

This piece and others reported and written by The Sun's two veteran obituary writers, Kelly and Fred Rasmussen, are shaped by the two reporters' knowledge of Baltimore's culture and history, and their passion to tell the story of someone's life.

The Thomas Cunningham obit not only described the man's nearly 60 years of delivering eggs to homes and stores, it also described a way of life that has mostly disappeared.

Kelly wrote of how Mr. Cunningham "held the eggs up to a light to detect imperfections - and sorted them by grade, from peewee to pullet to extra large. Once he had boxed the eggs, he loaded them into a Chevrolet step van and fanned out across the city and county."

The story quoted his son, Thomas V. Cunningham, describing his father's customers: "They appreciated his advice, his tendency to do small chores, and his affinity for good conversation."

A great obituary writer goes beyond the recitation of biographical facts to provide color and detail that explain who the person was and how he or she was shaped by events. In this case, Mr. Cunningham's life was illuminated by the reporting on what he did for a living.

Reader Sister Barbara Wheeley, Sisters of Mercy, said: "Thank you for your wonderful obit on Tom Cunningham. I was surprised to see it - he was just at our house on Saturday. Tom delivered eggs to my parents for many years and then in our neighborhood for at least 20 years. Tom was a delightful person and we will miss him."

Reader Chris Stoehr said: "I read the egg man obituary and thought, forget about heaven. If you live your life right, you might get Jacques Kelly to write your obituary."

Kelly said last week that he'd known for years about the egg delivery circuit. "Because I knew how it worked and some of the people that were involved, I understood what a unique kind of life it was," he said.

Kelly began his newspaper career while still in college, writing obituaries for The News American in the summer of 1970. "I became addicted to obit reading at that time," Kelly said. "Of course, I have covered neighborhoods and city history for another 26 years, and along the way got to know the people I'm now writing about."

Kelly's and Rasmussen's knowledge of Baltimore is well known to many Sun readers. Kelly writes a weekly column about the nuances of city life, and Rasmussen writes a weekly feature called "Back Story," which examines memorable moments in local history.

Obituaries remain some of the best-read stories in The Sun. Whether placed on the front page, the Maryland front page or in the obituary pages themselves, news obituaries run the gamut from the famous to the obscure.

Whether it is about Sister Josanna (founding director of Our Daily Bread) or the Rev. Harold E. Ridley (president of Loyola College) or Heather Bailey (a 36-year-old former athlete whose battle against ovarian cancer inspired many others), the newspaper treats obituaries as news stories.

"A woman's struggle against breast cancer can be as inspirational as how wartime events turned an Army private into a hero," Rasmussen said.

The Sun seeks, except in rare instances, to write and publish obituaries within seven days of someone's death.

City Editor Howard Libit said the newspaper's policies occasionally create conflict with grieving family members.

"We insist that every obituary list what caused the death, even suicide," Libit said. "We also insist the obituaries list all the important elements of people's lives, including divorces and estranged children."

Despite the occasional conflict, for some readers obituaries represent a rare place where civility and continuity are constants.

Writing and reporting about death every day is demanding and can take an emotional toll on any reporter. But Rasmussen, who has been writing obituaries for 12 years, said: "There is joy in such a grim job, believe it or not."

Rasmussen and Kelly receive some of the most inspired feedback from the public.

"The greatest thing is hearing from readers who say, `I wish I had known that person,'" Rasmussen said. "When I get such calls or letters, I know that I have done my job."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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