Jessica Anthony ’96, an award-winning writer, joined the staff in July as part-time editor of class notes. Her first task was writing a few obituaries for this issue.
Our obits give the news: who, when, what. They also try to offer some indication of why we’re telling you what we’re telling you,in the words of Charles Strum P’03, describing his job as obituary editor for The New York Times. The Times, of course, is able to publish only a few obits daily. “Gene Mauch, Manager of Teams That Fell Just Short” and “Abe Hirschfeld, a Millionaire and an Eccentric” were two recent ones.
We can’t fit everyone in, Strum explained to me. “If we published an obit of every doctor, lawyer, and beloved teacher — as deserving as they probably are — we’d go out of business looking for more newsprint.” He’s not being snide. Though all Bates alums do get a Bates Magazine obit, our section is limited, too: just 9,000 words. Lest unpublished obits pile up the way 19th-century New England burials had to await the springtime thaw, obits must be kept to 200 words or so.
College magazines vary in their treatment of obits. Amherst publishes long alum-written obits. Williams publishes just-the-facts obits of about 100 words. Bowdoin employs a classic news style: dates of death and birth, then a sequence of life events, all in about 150 words. Our conversational yet restrained obit style does reflect Strum’s “why we’re telling you this” imperative, but not in the sense of offering a glimpse into fascinating, albeit faraway lives. We want to present a Bates tableau. The deceased described in these pages were your dorm mates and classmates, friends and perhaps lovers. They were spouses, teammates, fellow cast members, groomsmen and maids of honor.
So we don’t use phrases like “he enjoyed his grandchildren” (although, for the grandchildren’s sake, we hope he did). The inimitably English British Medical Journal lists phrases to avoid for its obits, such as, “We shall not see his/her like again.” The journal explains that “when applied universally…they are unlikely to be true, if only on statistical grounds, while such repetition has a stultifying effect on readers.”
We want to share information from old class notes, clippings, Mirrors, letters, and other sources to conjure the roommate you haven’t seen since Parker Hall in 1958. We hope to describe an alum so that you’re sorry you never had a brew together at the Goose — hinting further that Bates does renew (but not reinvent) itself each generation or so.
When an obit is done artfully, said Jessica Anthony during her interview, the reader hears a distinctive Bates voice. Thus from her initial efforts in this issue we learn that the late Grace Hussey Johnson was a busy student who nevertheless would catch her breath on the window ledge in her room on the top floor of Rand Hall, enjoying the sun on her face and strumming a ukulele for passers-by, way back in 1927.