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Local Lives

Matt Schudel

Most of the larger obituaries in major newspapers are about the famous and the mighty. When a celebrity, political leader or distinguished scientist dies, we try to describe the significance that person's life as fully as we can. But what about people who weren't well known but who left a lasting impression on the world around them?

For about five years, The Washington Post has been running a weekly feature on the Sunday obituaries page called "A Local LIfe." This is a story about someone from the Washington area who led an interesting, exemplary or unusual life but was not in the headlines. It's a popular part of our obituaries coverage that readers seem to respond to, and it gives us a chance to profile people who might otherwise be forgotten. So how do we go about selecting our Local Lives?

It's not always easy, among the dozens of other obituaries we're working on throughout the week. But when we're taking calls about people who have died recently, there are always a few who stand out. When I was talking with the daughter of Bertha Brecker Smith a few weeks ago, I was struck by Mrs. Smith's resilience and sense of defiance. She had been a teacher and bookkeeper but because of an eye disease, she progressively lost her sight until she was completely blind at the age of 48.

She learned Braille, got a guide dog, worked as a Braille proofreader and wrote a book about learning to read Braille. She did not bemoan her fate but became an active force for understanding, teaching others how to deal with blindness and taking her guide dog to schools to demystify the world of the blind for children. It was fascinating to learn from her daughter how Mrs. Smith put a bead of solder on her oven dial, so she could continue to cook. She had Braille tags sewn in her clothing, indicating what colors to wear. She led protest demonstrations outside restaurants that wouldn't admit her with her guide dog.

We profile dozens of fascinating people like Bertha Smith every year. Sometimes they're cranky local characters, such as furniture store owner Fred Litwin, and sometimes they made a remarkable difference in society, such as Ken Jacques, who selflessly worked with the homeless for more than 30 years, or Priscilla Reining, who made key discoveries about the spread of AIDS in Africa. And from time to time, they're just peculiar souls, like a musician I once profiled who always carried a gun with him -- and sometimes pulled it on his students, if they didn't play a part right.

Working on a Local Life is one of my favorite things about writing obituaries. Since we do 52 of them a year, we're always on the lookout for good candidates. For me, that means keeping an ear open for family lore and personal history. If someone kept a journal or wrote an autobiographical account, all the better. A Local Life is only as good as the stories people pass on to keep someone's memory alive.

By Matt Schudel  |  September 30, 2007; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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I am a biographer who started by writing obituaries for the Montgomery County Sentinel in 1962. My subjects were almost never noteworthy, but there is something about the arc of a life that is profoundly moving. I love this blog!

Posted by: Kristie Miller | October 2, 2007 10:07 AM | Report abuse

My husband and I are avid readers of Local Life and Obits - amazing people live all round us here in Washington - please keep up the good work!

Posted by: Holly Pollinger | October 2, 2007 10:52 AM | Report abuse

My beloved father died in 2000 having lived in the Washington area most of his life (after a boyhood on the family farm in Berryville, Virginia which they lost in the Depression, a brief college career in Tennessee only to return to help on the farm, and service in the Pacific in World War II. He was a middle manager at PEPCO, but made most of his nice nest egg investing in real estate in what is now called "Old Town" Alexandria. He was a kind and respected landlord who treated all with respect, and he was sometimes the only white person at black funerals in Alexandria. As he was dying of lung cancer, he said to me adamantly, "I don't want an obituary." I have lived since with the regret of not having defied him to write his obituary. He lived a good, admirable, and interesting life, yet I believe he feared his life wasn't special. It was, and I should have proved it to him by writing his obituary. It would have given him a glimpse back into his worthy life and a sense of my enormous pride in him.

Posted by: Patricia Lloyd | October 3, 2007 10:45 PM | Report abuse

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