Partial to Home: Celebrating the obscure


Birney Imes



On a recent, brilliantly cold morning while navigating a kayak down the Buttahatchee somewhere between Lawrence Bridge Road near Caledonia and Highway 45, I thought about the late Robert McG. Thomas Jr., the celebrated writer of obituaries for the New York Times. 


Paddling, like any number of repetitive activities, is a meditation of sorts, and the mind -- the Monkey Mind, as a Buddhist might put it -- can wander down unexpected pathways. 


I'd been thinking about writing a column about column writing and Thomas' obituaries in The Times were an early influence. He died in 2000. 


The obituaries -- 52 of which have been collected in 52 McG.s, Chris Calhoun ed. -- are funny, profound, erudite, unfailingly quirky and at times madcap. Mostly, they're about people you've never heard of, a celebration of the uncelebrated. 


Though, there are exceptions ... 


Douglas Corrigan, a brash, errant aviator who captured the imagination of a Depression-weary public in 1938 when he took off from Brooklyn on a nonstop solo flight to Los Angeles and landed his improbable airplane in Dublin a day later, died on Saturday at a hospital in Orange, Calif. He was 88 and had been lionized for more than half a century as Wrong Way Corrigan. ... 


A Tennessee native (Shelbyville), Thomas went to Yale, where he worked on the newspaper and flunked out, as he said, because he chose "to major in New York rather than academics." 


He went to work at The Times in 1959 as a copyboy, and to quote from his obituary in that newspaper, "began writing obituaries full time in 1995 after serving as a police reporter, a rewrite man, a society news reporter and a sports writer." 


Thomas wrote obituaries for the inventor of Kitty Litter, a private detective who once planted a bug in a martini olive, the priest who gave Lee Harvey Oswald a Christian burial and the postmaster general responsible for implementing the zip code. 


Thomas was at his best eulogizing the obscure. Under the headline, "Charles McCartney, known for travels with goats, dies at 97," he begins ... 


You take a fellow who looks like a goat, travels around with goats, eats with goats, lies down among goats and smells like a goat and it won't be long before people will be calling him the Goat Man. 


Which is pretty much what Charles McCartney had in mind back in the Depression when he pulled up his Iowa stakes, put on his goatskins, hitched up his ironed-wheeled goat wagon and hit the road for what turned out to be a three-decade odyssey as one of the nations' most endearing eccentrics and by far its most pungent peripatetic roadside tourist attraction. ... 


This past week we reported on and wrote an editorial about New Hope students participating in a robotics competition. Can we overestimate the value of these out-of-the-classroom endeavors, be it science fairs, sports, band or drama. With these activities, kids see real-world applications for the stuff teachers are trying to teach them. Oftentimes, it's that extracurricular activity that keeps a child in school. It was the idea of playing in the jazz ensemble that got one of our children out the door every day. 


This bends back to Robert McG. Thomas Jr. and an obituary that has stuck with me, even if the name has not. I think the subject of the obit was an organizer of some sort. Thomas recounted how as a boy the recently deceased had attended a school in New York City where students could learn what they wanted when they wanted. 


One day, the subject of the obit and several of his classmates snuck out of school and went to a movie. At this point in their academic career they had paid little mind to the written word. This was the era of silent movies and the young illiterates were unable to decipher the dialog lines. They returned to school and learned to read. 


Therein lies the challenge of educators, finding and exposing kids to the spark that ignites their desire to learn. There is no one answer, of course. If it were only as simple as a group of kids sneaking out to see a silent film. 


Birney Imes' email address is [email protected]


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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