who has ever worked on the editorial side of a newspaper, which given all the
various career paths out there is not a huge percentage of the labor force, knows
about writing obituaries.
Of course, reporters don’t call them obituaries.
In journalism speak, they are obits.
When I began working as a cub reporter
in the summer of love, 1967, writing obits was entry-level stuff, barely above
rewriting the local news stories mailed in by country correspondents paid by the
inch for their work. (See “Flag Day Festivities Set in Johnson City.”)
Now, looking back, I understand how important all those “last writes” I pounded
out about the newly departed were to their family and friends, not to mention
how essential they were to the business model of a newspaper that prided itself
in its exhaustive regional coverage. What I considered hack work back then is
today’s genealogical source and in some cases, the stuff of history.
fall that year, I had written enough obits to handle a big one when it came up.
When former Vice President John Nance Garner died at his home in Uvalde,
the managing editor assigned me to write the page-one obituary, the first obit
I ever got a byline on.
I went on to write scores if not a few hundred
more obits before I finally moved on to a different way of making a living in
1985. But I never wrote an obit that could have cost me my life. My career, maybe.
A bullet from an aggrieved party, no.
A. Keleher, who grew up in Albuquerque, had as a young man in 1906 delivered Western
Union telegrams in El Paso.
He eventually moved back to New Mexico, where when he began writing for newspapers.
He also earned a law degree, leaving journalism to open a legal practice in Albuquerque.
Soon, bored with both the spirit and the letter of the law, he began to
wonder why in the world he had pursued the bar.
Knowing that his former
boss at one of Albuquerque’s dailies had gone to El
Paso as managing editor of the Times, Keleher sent him a letter explaining
that he would like to get back into the newspaper business.
Keleher received this telegram: “Come at once, City Editor, $30.00 a week.”
Keleher came at once.
In 1916, with its 30,000 residents El
Paso was the biggest city between San
Antonio and Los Angeles. With the Mexican Revolution going on, it was a big
news town, as well.
Keleher’s first assignment as a Times staff writer
was what’s known as a death watch. General Victoriano Huerta, former Mexican president,
had been living in exile in El
Paso. But the 73-year-old newsmaker would not be living anywhere much longer.
Huerta died on Jan. 13, 1916, Keleher wrote the obit. It appeared on page one
the following morning. Positive as that was, it turned out to be the last newspaper
story Keleher ever wrote.
Proud of a piece of writing that was as flowery
as some of the arrangements gracing the former president’s coffin, Keleher went
to Huerta’s house on January 15 to get the details of the late general’s pending
“I encountered a chilly, hostile atmosphere,” Keleher later recalled.
“Although admitted with…courtesy and politeness, I quickly found out that I was
not a welcome visitor.”
Surrounded by an entourage of stern-faced fellow
Mexican military men, Gen. Ignacio Bravo nicely told Keleher that he had “abused
our hospitality.” The look on the faces of the men told him their politeness ran
only so deep, their strained civility attributable only to the somber circumstance
at hand. In fact, many a man had died along the border for far less than offending
the battle-hardened friends of a former revolutionary.
Back at the Times
city room, Keleher related what had happened. He couldn’t understand what had
made Huerta’s supporters so annoyed with him.
His editor solved the mystery.
While Keleher’s story had been fair, the newspaper’s separate-but-more-partisan
Spanish language edition had been less than complimentary of the former Mexican
leader. Someone who must have picked a side in the fight across the river had
taken the bare facts from Keleher’s obit and embellished them with their own political
slant. In fact, the Spanish version outright called Huerta “a low down dog.”
Realizing that more than his credibility was at stake, Keleher decided the majesty
of the law could be fulfilling after all. As soon as he could pack his bag, he
boarded the next train for Albuquerque.
Keleher went on to a distinguished
career as a lawyer and writer-historian, producing five books, including the memoir
in which he told of his short stint as a Texas newspaperman.
And when he died in 1972 his hometown newspapers remembered him in lengthy obits.
© Mike Cox
23, 2010 column
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