Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 18, 2011

Make the person come alive!

Too often when people die, their obituary just states dry facts. It makes me sad to have a person's life summed up in such a perfunctory way. "Make the person come alive" is what I tell my news-writing students.

But many news organizations don't have enough staff to do more and survivors are sometimes at a loss about what to say or how to say it. Years ago, this problem was sometimes addressed by having people write their own obituaries. Luther Jackson, one of husband Art's relatives, had his obituary preceded by the following editor's comment:

"Before his death, Mr. Jackson wrote out much of the data pertaining to his life's history in his own handwriting to give to this newspaper after he died. Concluding his own autobiography after he had recounted the important events of his career, he penned a simple valedictory 'and you know the rest.'"

While news organizations frequently keep files on well-known people so they're prepared to write an obituary at a moment's notice, I believe even ordinary people deserve a few lines that show others what the person was like. When Dad died, I wrote facts, but I also added other tidbits:

"He and his family lived in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, California and Colorado during the Depression years, before moving to Burns, Kan., in 1932. They lived on the farm his grandparents, William and Mary (Hillyer) Freeland, purchased in the early 1900s."

"During World War II, he helped his parents on the two farms they owned near Burns. They raised wheat, oats, white kaffir corn, alfalfa, corn and flax, which was used to make parachutes."

"He married Edla Josephine Mostrom on May 19, 1946 at the Marion Hill Lutheran Church near White City ... They traveled to California, Hawaii, Texas and many other states. They also traveled to Costa Rica to visit their daughter Gloria, who worked there for two years, and to Bolivia three times to visit their daughter Gaila, who has lived in La Paz since 1983."

"He enjoyed studying his family's history and was considered 'a keeper of the family memories' by his children and others in his family. He also loved K-State sports, reading, crossword puzzles and his pets. He had a small role in the movie, 'Mars Attacks,' part of which was filmed in Burns."

A September obituary in Art's hometown paper, the Appleton (Wisc.) Post-Crescent, caught his eye because it was written in the first person:

"Dona Mae Schimmelpfenning (1939 - 2011), Appleton ... On July 21, 1939 I was given life to a wonderful family, Silas and Martha Danley. I was born in Clintonville, but also lived in Embarrass and grew up in Marion. It was a wonderful time in my life. On September 27, 1958 I wed Earl Schimmelpfenning. We were married for 48 years when Earl passed away on March 23, 2007. We had two children: Cindy Lou and Kim Marie. Cindy married Jeffery Ashauer. My life was made complete when they gave us four grandsons..."

When mother-in-law Donna died in 2009, Art and I worked together on her obituary. Although the paper charged several hundred dollars to print it, we decided we wanted people to know about this "character" we knew and loved:

"She loved to sing, startling her mother when, as a toddler, she remembered all the words and pitches of 'Down by the Old Mill Stream.' After high school, she studied at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music. Possessing a powerful voice, she was offered a singing job in New York City, but her mother's illness required her to stay at home and care for her younger siblings. She especially enjoyed music from the 1930s and 1940s and Dixieland jazz."

"She married Thomas L. Vaughan on June 23, 1931, in Appleton. As a Depression-era bride, she developed a frugal lifestyle, which continued throughout her life. After Tom retired, they traveled much of the central and southeastern United States. They enjoyed nearly 55 years of marriage until Tom's death in 1986. Being shy and always late as a youngster, she appreciated how he showed her how to meet people and to be punctual."

"Donna became an avid Green Bay Packers fan in the 1920s. She had season tickets from 1939 through 1992, when she decided watching the games on TV was less hassle. She and son Tommy often spoke about the team for hours each day during the season. She attended the 'Ice Bowl' in 1967."

"As she got older, although she enjoyed life, she frequently wondered aloud what good she was to anyone. Her sons, grandchildren and other relatives said she was their 'entertainment' as she was frequently the life of the party at family gatherings due to her strong opinions about almost everything. She often said she had to be strong to live in a family of three men. While a good cook and seamstress, she saw those things as just tasks that needed to be done, preferring to read and talk about football, politics and economics. She said had she been born today, she would have sought a job in business. Themes she often repeated were 'These are the good old days' and 'Do it while you can; don't wait too long.'"

"In 1990, at the age of 80, Donna traveled with her son Art and daughter-in-law Gloria to Germany and Austria. The following year they visited Mecklenburg in the former East Germany and Lower Silesia, now in Poland, to see her ancestors' villages. She declared those lands to be 'just like Wisconsin,' but wondered aloud, 'What's wrong with these people that they don't give free refills on coffee?'"

Did we succeed in making Donna "come alive?" One can never be sure, but after the obituary appeared, an online visitor to the funeral home's website wrote, "I want to be Donna Vaughan when I grow up."

Left: Edgar watching TV with one of his favorite pets Oreo by his side; right: a family calendar photo shows expressive Donna making a point while granddaughter Katie hopes she didn't get all of her grandma's genes.

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