The farewell anecdotes that we didn't have room to publish


Back Story

January 11, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

Writing obituaries for The Baltimore Sun, you get to know a lot of nice people at the worst moment in their lives.

In the majority of cases, this is the first time we have connected, even though, as we say, we occasionally have repeat customers.

Inevitably, it can turn personal, when friends and colleagues pass away. (For the record, it is The Sun's policy that we do not write obits for our family members. Other reporters are given that task.)

In the course of researching the life of the deceased, lots of good material surfaces that might not make the final cut because of space restrictions. But many anecdotes and stories still rattle around my brains, so I want to share some with you as the old year dies and the new year is aborning.

January started off with the news of the death of Carleton Jones, a cherished former colleague, author and friend, who had died Dec. 29, 2007.

For Carleton, history and the character-filled epochs remained a living and breathing concept. The events of yesterday were as brilliant and vibrant as today, and he could always make fascinating connections. He was an entertaining storyteller who could hold an audience spellbound for hours.

The son of a general and West Pointer, Carleton grew up in Depression-era Washington, and I remember him telling me that he attended Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inauguration. It was held March 4, 1933, on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, under partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 40s.

Carleton was 10 years old when he listened to the 32nd president recite the oath of office.

"Listen, Dad," - he always called all males "Dad" - "I had to go to the bathroom, and no one would take me. They were more interested in hearing FDR's speech," he said with a laugh.

Ruth Snead was another old friend who died at the beginning of the year.

Ruth had grown up in Berlin during the Roaring '20s and early 1930s, and loved to talk of the splendor of the city and its charms before the ugly rise of Nazism swept it all away, and she was forced to emigrate with her family to Richmond, Va.

A daughter of cultured parents who were active in the Berlin intellectual scene, Ruth typified the elegance of an almost-vanished era. She also had wonderful maxims from the old days.

"My mother always said, 'When going out at night, make sure you ride in a black car, never a light-colored one,' and 'Champagne makes you happy,' " she said.

Sitting around New Year's Eve afternoon, I could hear her voice, which retained its German overtones. "Always get dressed up on New Year's Eve, even if you're not going out," she advised.

As a person who loathes New Year's Eve, I think that's pretty good advice, don't you?

The death last summer of Dr. Victor A. McKusick, who was called the "father of medical genetics," recalled a pleasant morning some years ago, when he invited me along for an informative walking tour of the original Johns Hopkins Hospital buildings.

It was too bad that mention of those legendary walking tours never made it into his obit, because it was something he thoroughly enjoyed.

McKusick never lost his Maine-tinged voice, which echoed as we walked through the halls he had trod since coming to the hospital in 1943.

He laced his remarks with wonderful anecdotes that recalled the days when medical students completing their residencies lived in the hospital, and occasionally indulged in such hijinks as whipping up bathtub gin in one of the laboratories in the dead of night and away from official scrutiny.

A rite of passage for medical students who had completed their residencies was a tour to the top of the Hopkins dome led by the sprightly McKusick, who continued doing this and for other interested parties until he was well into his 80s.

He enjoyed stepping out on a spidery iron walkway and showing the students perhaps one of the most spectacular, historical and exclusive views of Baltimore.

Let me say right now, I don't like heights. As we wound up and up a narrow interior metal stairway within the dome, I could feel my knees beginning to knock.

"Keep coming, keep coming, you're almost there," McKusick kept urging.

I was afraid to go up and had no idea how I was going to get down.

Then it was up a small ladder and through a narrow door. I could go no farther.

Looking out of the door, I was greeted by the roundness and plunging line of the dome, and could feel the cold December wind whistling across my face.

There was no way I was going out on the iron walkway.

McKusick, sensing my quiet panic, let me off the hook.

I slowly made my descent back to terra firma, but not before my host instructed me and the others to wait, while he opened a squeaky door leading into a dimly lighted attic room. The objective of this visit was to show off the room where the original doors to the hospital were stored.

Another storied medical figure who died last year was Dr. Edward F. Lewison, an internationally recognized authority on breast cancer who established the breast clinic at Hopkins.

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