Thursday, May 28, 2009

The night Mayor Fah died

It’s the late 1970s, and I’m on the copy desk.

I’m editing an obit for Walter J. Fah, a resident of a nearby community I’ll call Roundsville.

It’s a two-page obit, taken over the phone by a reporting intern whom I don’t know and, in fact, don’t recall ever seeing in the newsroom before.

Unlike most of the obits my paper runs, Mr. Fah’s sendoff has what we call a “display headline” – two lines of 36-point type, as opposed to a 12-point headline that would just say “Walter J. Fah.”

I soon realize the reason for the 36-point headline: Mr. Fah was once mayor of Roundsville and thus, according to the Great Obituary Chain of Being, deserves a display hed.

But as I go over the list of survivors, I notice that he has two sons who have the last name of Smith.

Well, anything’s possible, but it’s always best to check.

I call the undertaker, and our conversation goes something like this:

“Hello, I’d like to check something on the obituary for Walter J. Fah.”


“You mean Smith, don’t you?”

“No. Fah. Walter J. Fah.”

“Don’t you mean Smith?”

Another pause.

I say, “Was this guy mayor of Roundsville?”

“Yes! Walter J. Smith!”

… I’m certain there was more to this conversation, and I’m equally certain that I’m happy to have completely forgotten it.

After getting off the phone, I walk over to the managing editor and tell him that we very nearly ran a headline saying “Former Mayor Fah Dies.”

Within minutes, but not within my earshot, the night city editor asks the intern about this.

This is an era in which news stories as well as obits are often dictated by phone, and the intern’s response is similar to what some non-intern reporters have told me when I’ve questioned them on a dictated story:

“That’s the way they gave it to me over the phone!”

Thirty years later, I still haven’t figured this out.

And I haven't seen that intern since.

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