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Obit Writer RIP

Adam Bernstein

It's not a criticism to say Gayle Ronan Sims, who died last night at age 61, would take four hours to do what most of us could in 10 minutes. She was extremely sympathetic, with a soft and soothing voice that made probing questions seem as gentle as an invitation to have another scoop of sugar in your coffee.

Her job, as the Philadelphia Inquirer's chief obituaries writer, was to summarize the lives of those who rarely were known outside their immediate community. The headline of her last published obituary -- "Rose Turner, a soup-kitchen stalwart" -- says it all. It would be easy to wrap up that story and move on quickly, operating like Navy Seals who get the mission done and move on to the next place.

To Gayle, each new story seemed something more. -- an opportunity to meet a new friend. Gayle lingered on the phone and lingered and lingered, and by the end of her calls, she would often call me up and say how wonderful a family member was and how she and the person were going to meet up for lunch or dinner because they had so much fun talking.

In the last year, her health worsened from a condition that made her lungs feel as if they were being slowly filled with crushed glass. To inhale was painful. To exhale was painful. She continued to work from home, breathing from an oxygen tank attached to a long cord that stretched up two stories of her house. She rarely left her home, except for medical appointments.

Her main connection to the outside world became obituary calls, and she continued to stay on the phone with families long enough to find new angles on entirely predictable obits. Not many of us would have the patience to get the details necessary for this opening paragraph:

John Craig Bell, 67, a beloved neurologist fondly remembered for his thriftiness and the inventive ways he used duct tape to extend the life of items, including his tennis shoes, died Jan. 25 of olivopontocerebellar atrophy, a rare neurological disease, at home in Montgomeryville.

In truth, my favorite Gayle obituaries were those of people who were not beloved or kind or very nice. The best obituaries, like the best of any news story, are those that take unpredictable turns. It was always worth reading Gayle when she came across someone with an unsavory side.

In November, she wrote about John L. Cionci, who died at 85 and whom she called "a once-successful osteopath who turned his life around after he was jailed in 1984 for his role in a phony auto-accident insurance scam."

The best element of the story was in the next paragraph, where she got the man's daughter to say: "Prison made my father a better man. Before that, he was a jerk - materialistic, greedy, a thief, always drove a brand-new Lincoln - he was really into status. Jail humbled him, and he then devoted his life to helping the underprivileged. He found God through the experience."

Any idea how hard it is to get a family member to speak truth like that? People always want to remember the best of a life, never wanting inconvenient details to appear in an obit, which is after all likely to be for the community the final way someone will be remembered.

Gayle never wanted her own obit written. She was private. She did not like to discuss her past, including her upbringing in Missouri, an early marriage that ended in divorce to her and raising her two children. She worked briefly for a politician before entering journalism.

She said she had a tense relationship with her family in Missouri and tried to reinvent herself. That's all I can say, because that's all she ever told me. I met her several years ago at an obituary writers' workshop in New Mexico -- actually a great event that drew first-rate obituary writers from as far away as England and Japan.

We liked each other instantly and she advised me constantly on ways to better myself, which usually centered on some aspect of my personal life. She had a tendency to crusade on the boyfriend/girlfriend issue, and the targets of her unsolicited advice either found her caring and nurturing or entirely inappropriate.


She was complicated and wonderful and, in her final year, scared. Doctors told her that a double-lung transplant was the only potential solution to her condition. She went through a period of denial. She questioned the value of living with new lungs that would require an extensive and painful recovery, with no guarantee that she would be able "to climb a mountain someday." That was her goal.

She tried some weird acupuncture cure that relieved her pain temporarily. She eventually got serious about what she needed to do: start the regimen necessary for a double lung transplant and get her affairs in order.

The last time I spoke to her, she called at 5 a.m. about a month ago to the day. Finally the doctors found a pair of lungs for her. My wife and I reassured her as best we could, which is to say not nearly enough.

She never left the hospital's ICU as complications ensued from the surgery. Her daughter and son took care of her. They brought in music she liked and pasted near her hospital bed a photo montage of their lives together. I saw her last weekend, but she was heavily sedated and never was aware of the visit. Can't decide if the visit was for her or me, but it wasn't Gayle I saw because the Gayle I saw was quiet and unopinionated.

Sort of thinking about Gayle's legacy now, and here's what crosses my mind. Unless one is lucky enough to realize just how fun and compelling obits can be, to see their many styles and forms from London to New York to Washington, obituary writing is not a job most journalists crave or most readers care about. But in truth it's no less important than the people who chronicle the incremental ephemera that fill most of a newspaper's pages. Few obit writers want to spend their days chasing down information that they know will not make it into an obit.

An obituary is a life, and Gayle wrote thousands of them, the equivalent of a small city. Her patience, her eccentricities, her devotion to community made her impact enormous.

By Adam Bernstein  |  April 17, 2009; 2:02 PM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  | Tags: obituary writer Philadelphia Inquirer  
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A beautiful post; this left me feeling like a lost a friend when someone I had never met passed from this life. I think that's the hallmark of an amazing remembrance.

Posted by: pburris | April 20, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I just stumbled onto this blog and am absolutely taken by it. Though this may sound gruesome, I have always gone to the obituary page of my local paper, not because I know someone who is "featured", but because I find it interesting to read about the lives of people I have never met who may have lived to 95, or what may have been accomplished by someone whose life ended too early.

I have always felt that good obituary writing is an art and mourn the passing (no pun intended) of the general obit page, as many families feel it is an extra expense they can no longer afford.

Posted by: sharonkettelhut | April 26, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

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