Obituaries are Among the Last Opportunities to Frame History’s Judgment of an Individual
10/8/21 – – Ninety years ago, my maternal grandfather Alvin Olson wrote an obituary so out of the ordinary that it was reprinted on the front page of the Chicago Tribune and in 600 newspapers worldwide. It’s still featured in journalism textbooks. Before you read it (printed below) and see what all the fuss was about, here’s the backstory:
In 1930, my grandfather got a job as a staff writer for the Courier-Hub, a daily newspaper published in Stoughton, Wisconsin, a small suburb of Madison, the state capital. An unemployed insurance agent (no one was buying insurance in the early months of the Great Depression), Alvin was hired by the paper’s founder, Charles S. Crosse, who quickly took a liking to him.
After working together for less than a year, Crosse’s declining health prevented him from coming into the office. So, my grandfather would bring him the day’s paper and spend some time on his porch chatting with the crusty old guy he considered his mentor and friend. During one visit on a hot summer day, Crosse made a strange request of my grandfather, a request Alvin Olson honored in a very creative way.
Before I spoil the story, here’s the text of the obituary my grandfather wrote for the Stoughton Courier-Hub in 1931 upon the death of Charles Crosse:
It was beastly hot that afternoon as I trudged up North Page Street. Two cigars, the favorite brand, jiggled together in my shirt pocket. I wondered if the perspiration would moisten the tobacco and stain my shirt. Then the thought came: How little a thing like that would mean to the man I was to see; thinking of oneself when on the way to see a friend. Shamefacedly, I glanced about, almost as if a passerby could see my shame and read my thoughts.
There, in the comparative coolness of the porch, I sat with my friend and discussed the issue of the newspaper which had just come from the press. “This is a hell of a sheet.” The accusation startled me, shook from me the pride which I had felt over two of the stories I had written.
Passing through the paper, my friend commented on the news. Coming to an obituary, he leaned over in his chair, and with his hand, the one that had guided a pencil in writing of many a pioneer newspaper story, the hand that could be raised in righteous wrath and shaken in the face of one who disagreed with him, or as easily raised to do some kindness, with that hand placed on my knee said, “Some day, young fellow, I am going to shuffle off. And when I do, if you are on the newspaper here, I don’t want to find you writing any of this nonsense about me. Just one line.” And then he told me what the line should be.
Arguments as to what people would think, what it would mean to his family, how my paper would be outdone by others, all were useless. And so, I gave my solemn promise that his wish would be carried out.
Once more I visited my friend in company with a second person. We had gone to my friend’s room and chatted gaily on politics, newspapers, weather, and prohibition. My friend was weary, so we sought to leave. Calling me back to his bedside my friend said, “Boy, there is not a very long time left. Remember your promise, ONLY ONE LINE and my name only once.” He clasped my hand with his. His hand had grown more white, thinner and less steady than before, but it was the same hand that had done so much for me.
The thousands who love him will understand; if there be any who did not, they will never know the difference as with a sorrow that is keenly felt, with an absolute disregard of the tributary obituary he deserves, I set down the sad and final story of a friend:
CHARLIE CROSSE IS DEAD.
As you might imagine, my grandfather’s Courier-Hub colleagues were hesitant to publish the unconventional obituary. But when they did, the world became fascinated with the little town in Wisconsin. The obituary, which was translated into German, French and Japanese, went viral, in the pre-internet sense of the word. National radio and wire service reporters traveled to Stoughton to interview Alvin Olson and learn more about his story.
I first learned of the “Charlie Crosse is Dead” obituary in college, when I came across it in my journalism text book at Syracuse University. I called my mother and asked if this was the same Alvin Olson I heard about growing up (unfortunately he passed away when I was only three years old). She assured me he was, and although she was only five at the time, recalled all the excitement at her house when the media came calling. My grandfather, enjoying his higher profile, went on to serve on the Wisconsin Public Service Commission after working hard as a leader in the Wisconsin Democratic Party to help Franklin Roosevelt defeat incumbent Herbert Hoover in the presidential election of 1932.
Communication counselors are often involved in negotiating for the publication of fair, positive obituaries that capture the true character of a person important to their clients. After all, obituaries represent one of the last opportunities to frame history’s judgment of an individual. By keeping his word, Alvin Olson carved out a unique place in history for Charles Crosse and himself.