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Veteran reporter recalls his initiation to obit writing

| Sunday, March 12, 2006

Marilyn Johnson's book "The Dead Beat" describes the coming of age of obituaries - a section of a newspaper that was at one time the domain of interns or reporters with the least seniority in the newsroom.

Johnson confirms this observation in her chapter on the "ordinary Joe." In the early 1980s, she wrote, the obit page was the holding pen for broken-down journalists or young reporters who needed to be broken in.

Today, as Johnson explains through keen and witty observations, the gift of writing obituaries is closely scrutinized and given its rightful place in many major metropolitan dailies, along with news, sports and social events.

Personally, my lack of seniority was my passage to the world of obituaries, a world that touches the lives of not only the relatives of the deceased, but also the lives of those who admired and respected the men and women who meant so much to them when they were living.

When I started my newspaper career in 1968 with the former North Hills News-Record, I was assigned to the obituary department.

Today, as the feature obit writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I can relate to many of the experiences obituary writers face in their craft. I can especially relate to her chapter on writing about the "ordinary Joe."

"Most people, in the early years especially, couldn't imagine 20 inches on their plumber in a major metropolitan newspaper. He wasn't on city council. He wasn't a gang leader. But he got 20 inches for being a good father and a good plumber," said Jim Nicholson, who wrote obits for the New York Daily News.

"I was in a position to do that," he added. "You know how good that felt for me• We do a lot of bloodsucking in the newspaper business. A lot of it. This was one part of the business where I felt I could throw wood back on the fire."

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