ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The end of the year is a time to look back, and in this part of the program, we're going to hear from some people who spend lots of time looking back. They're obituary writers, the women and men who, in relatively few words, tell us about the lives of those who've passed on.
We begin with Steve Miller; he's the obituary writer at the New York Sun, and he has a soft spot for inventors. They don't have to be especially well-known. For Miller, inventors of everyday items are just as interesting. He thinks about them all the time, even at his local supermarket in Brooklyn, New York.
(Soundbite of scanner)
Mr. STEVE MILLER (Obituary Writer, New York Sun): I'm here in the produce aisle among the bags of baby spinach and lettuce and cucumbers and picking up a package of Bunny-Luv baby carrots. There was a guy named Mike Yurosek in California in the 1980s, a carrot farmer. He actually invented these things. Not many people know that baby carrots don't grow this way. Baby carrots are milled. Yurosek died on June 12th, age 82.
When I walk down the supermarket aisles, I don't just see stacks of melons and bottles of pickles, but I see the life stories of the people who made those things possible.
Unidentified Woman #1: ...(Unintelligible) would you please let me know if we have any Post Raisin Bran cereal in the 20-ounce box? I have a customer waiting.
Mr. MILLER: I'm standing here in front of a big freezer case full of turkeys, and I'll reach in here and grab one. (Grunts) That's a big turkey, about 20 pounds. This is a Butterball, and I see it's got one of those plastic pop-up timers. That's the handiwork of Eugene Beals. Beals was looking for a way to prevent the dried-out turkey breasts that are the bane of home cooks. And the timers have been put in an estimated two billion birds. Eugene Beals died September 30th, age 86.
Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you.
Unidentified Woman #3: Thank you.
Unidentified Woman #2: Next, please.
Mr. MILLER: One of the highlights of this year for an obituary writer has to be Seymour Seagal(ph). He was a real entrepreneur of appetizing. Seagal took a family recipe for chopped liver and parlayed it into a giant company that turned out hundreds of millions of pounds of salads a year, more than a hundred million pounds of potato salad alone. The thing about Seagal's potato salad is that it looks like homemade. It's in a big tub in the deli section. Seagal made a fortune with his fertile culinary imagination, although he occasionally struck out, like the time that he tried spaghetti pie. Seymour Seagal died September 20th, age 76.
(Soundbite of cash register)
Unidentified Man: And that's small potato salad. Is that what it is?
Mr. MILLER: These are the stories that affect us every single day. It's people who are sitting around and thinking about how to make our lives better in some way. Every time we pick up a carrot or have a turkey sandwich, these guys are in our lives.
BLOCK: That's Steve Miller with the New York Sun, sharing memories of some of the people he's profiled this year.
Kay Powell has been fondly dubbed `the doyenne of the death beat.' She's the obituary editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and writes a lot of obits herself, colorful portraits that she considers news stories. Here's how one of her favorites began.
Ms. KAY POWELL (Obituary Editor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution): (Reading) September 21st, 2005. A visit to see Jay Mathis(ph), Forsyth County Airport left the 21st century behind. The airport was short on runway, just 1,550 feet, but long on character.
BLOCK: Crafting the story is only one part of the job. Approaching family members and friends at a difficult time requires a special approach.
Ms. POWELL: There's a lot of psychology involved in the words we use and how we approach people. And when I call a family, I will introduce myself immediately, Kay Powell, obits editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I'll tell them how sorry I am to hear about the death. I'll name the funeral home. I want to build credibility immediately. And I will single out something; I'll say, `I found the fact that she climbed Stone Mountain Park every day for 30 years, including 24 times on her 60th birthday. So interesting, and I want to let our readers know more about that.'
BLOCK: You must have to cull out the people that you end up profiling. How do you decide who actually gets into the paper?
Ms. POWELL: I swear, Melissa, I think it's just good news sense. One little thing can catch my eye and grab my attention, and it doesn't have to be anything big. I had a woman that volunteered at a pregnancy resource center; had a man that was--priced groceries for a grocery store. And I said, `We've never written on anybody--everybody buys groceries.' Well, it turns out he had pet skunks, quality, prize-winning pet skunks and was a motorcyclist and airbrushed pictures of his prize skunk on his motorcycle. I mean, that's the kind of thing that comes out from good interviewing.
BLOCK: Have you ever had this happen, that you end up maybe finding some things out that don't paint the person in a terribly flattering light? And if that happens, what do you do?
Ms. POWELL: It's a delicate balance. I'll give you an example. One was the woman who volunteered at the pregnancy resource center. As I talked to her husband, I just asked him, I said, `Had she had an abortion herself?' And he paused, and I said, `It is not uncommon for women who have had abortions to volunteer in gri'--and finally he said, `Well, yes, she did.' And I said, `Well, did she talk about it?' Well, it turns out she would testify in church and get up and tell her story, so she had been public about it. And so there it went in. If I was writing anybody's obit and found that out and it wasn't relative to the story, then no, I wouldn't put it in. But, yes, our job is to answer questions, not raise questions. If you can't believe what you read in an obit article, how can you believe anything else you read in the paper?
BLOCK: You'll find Kay Powell's obituaries in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the Metro Section, alongside the paid death notices, often written by the family, which she considers a form of American folk art. For us, one that popped out of the fine print ran in The New York Times this past February 11th, just 14 lines long.
Mr. LEE LEVINSON(ph): This is the obituary, and it took us about a half an hour to compose it. And it says, `Levinson, Samuel(ph), 92, cranky and cheap, but we loved him anyway. Devoted husband of 10, athlete, fun to be with, loved his family, astronomy, classical music and WNYC. Never bought a golf ball in his life. Multitasker; could sew, clean and yell at you all at the same time. Collector of rubber bands. Will be missed by entire family. He would think this obituary the biggest waste of money.' About 10 lines, maybe 15 lines. This was much longer. I think it came to about $700, the obituary. But when we first wrote it out, it probably was closer to 2,000 bucks. So we had to cut it down because we did feel he was looking over our shoulder.
BLOCK: That's Lee Levinson of Rockville Centre, New York, remembering his father Samuel Levinson, who died at age 92 on February 10th.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.