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.
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